Custer County High School in Westcliffe had been running a suicide prevention program called Sources of Strength for three years when it ran out of money to pay for it.
That’s when Regional Health Connector Mike Orrill, who works for Chaffee County Public Health, met the school’s football coach. The coach, who oversaw the program, told Mike about the cuts. And Mike told an associate at Custer County Public Health.
“She said, ‘Well, I have funding for that,’ ” Mike said. The health department gave the program $3,500 — enough to keep it running for several years.
Making this kind of connection is part of Mike’s job as a Regional Health Connector, or RHC, covering the four rural counties of Chaffee, Lake, Fremont and Custer in the Upper Arkansas Valley. Since starting in April 2017, Mike has found plenty of unmade connections.
“I asked them, what are the health and wellness needs you see?”
In Custer County, for instance, the public health department and high school are across the street from each other. But without Mike, the coach and the health department might not gotten together to save Sources of Strength.
Mike was a minister for 27 years at the First Presbyterian Church in Salida, where he still lives. When he began to consider retiring, his daughter, a nurse, encouraged him to consider working as a RHC.
Mike was particularly drawn to the RHC program’s focus on connecting physical and mental health services. “That fits very well with this idea of health and wellness I had as a minister,” he said. “It’s not just spiritual health, it’s health in its totality. Wellness.”
And, he said, many of his ministerial skills — seeing a need and addressing it, for example — fit well with his new job.
In his first months as an RHC, Mike traveled across the four counties talking to government officials, health workers, and community organization leaders.
“I asked them, what are the health and wellness needs you see?” he said. Opioids and substance use, depression and suicide, obesity and diabetes came up in almost every conversation.
That led Mike to mobilize three projects targeting those problems:
Depression and Suicide: Mike’s region, known to health officials as health statistics region (HSR) 13, has the second-highest rate of suicide in the state — 31.3 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2015, compared with a state average of 19.5. Nationwide, depression and suicide rates are particularly high among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, especially youth. But, unlike urban areas, HSR 13 had no organizations or resources to support LGBTQ residents and their families. So, Mike helped form a chapter of PFLAG — formerly known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — that will start in Salida. Mike hopes to eventually help other counties in his region follow suit.
Diabetes and Obesity: HSR 13, especially Fremont and Lake counties, has some of the highest rates of adults with diabetes in the state. Mike is helping to organize a diabetes roundtable, which will include staff from a hospital, state and local public health agencies, a local medical practice, and a dietician. Its first project will be to bring Weigh and Win, which rewards people who lose weight, to all four counties.
Substance Use: Mike’s region has the third highest rate of opioid and other substance use in the state. But so far, “like the Wild West, everyone has just been approaching the issue on their own.” HSR 13 recently received a $100,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment in part to create a regionwide opioid coalition. Mike is helping to organize a conference next year to educate health providers and others about the problem. Doctors have been prescribing opioids more cautiously, but that’s resulted in an unfortunate side effect: Some patients say they are turning to heroin if they can’t get pills. It’s a complicated problem, Mike said. He hopes the conference will include a focus on holistic pain management and responsible prescribing practices.
Mike’s agenda also includes setting up a dropbox for unused prescription pills and starting conversations about improving transportation, which can be a barrier to care in his region.
He has found that his workload is in direct proportion to the needs of the communities he serves.
“I want to be very clear with them that they’re not here to support me,” he said. “I’m here to support them and their projects.”
Regional Health Connector: Mike Orrill
Host Organization: Chaffee County Health Coalition
Region 13: Chaffee, Custer, Fremont, and Lake Counties
Photo: RHC Mike Orrill at an event for Colorado Drug Take Back Day in October 2017.