A "Time to Talk" meeting, with Angilina Taylor and Andy Godfrey on Zoom and metaverse participants, represented by avatars, in the virtual movie theatre. Courtesy photo

Aspen Strong’s mental health peer support group, “Time to Talk,” began in December 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by “providing people with a space to come, connect and talk about whatever they’re going through. To find a space where they could share their stories openly and find the resources that they needed,” explained Executive Director Angilina Taylor.

Lawrence Altman, Aspen Strong co-founder, and Andy Godfrey, board vice-president, developed the “Time to Talk” concept. It began, Godfrey said, when Altman was “going through a tough period in his life.”

They shared their personal stories and then asked, “Wouldn’t it be great to do something like that in more of a casual environment?”

“But, we were stuck. It was the fall of 2020, and we were stuck in COVID, so we decided to start it in an online Zoom format,” Godfrey explained.

After a little more than a year online, Godfrey shared, “It’s been going great. The main thing we want people to know is that it’s a safe and confidential environment, where people can come in and either share their stories or just listen to other people share — there’s absolutely no pressure to speak.”

Last fall, Godfrey explored ways to expand participation. He contacted the folks at Decentraland, a large “metaverse,” online platform, and found them “very enthusiastic about helping support us.”

In October 2021, the mental health advocacy group streamed its first “Time to Talk” call and recently, Godfrey shared, some participants have chosen to create digital avatars and join the session in a virtual movie theater, into which the Zoom call is streamed. 

“We can take their questions, and so it’s been very interesting and satisfying,” he said.

Taylor explained that when you join the Zoom meeting, you can choose not to turn on your camera, allowing you to speak anonymously. 

She said, “Still, many times, once they hear other people talking, they are inspired to turn their cameras on and want to talk as well, which has been really cool to see because a lot of times they may have been like, ‘I just thought I’d come here and listen, but wow, I am feeling like I’m connecting with the people here,’ — it’s a moving experience.”

Currently, the group is exploring ways to bring in experts on subjects like parenting or eating disorders to address specific topics of interest to participants.

Another Aspen Strong programming initiative, “For You By You,” is described as “a workshop to raise awareness and support youth mental well-being.” 

The program is designed for students in eighth grade and high school.

Aspen Strong will select 12 students from a recent application process that includes youth from Aspen to Rifle. 

Then, on Feb. 10, they will participate in an all-day workshop where, Taylor said, “we’re creating a safe space where they can be comfortable to share their experiences.”

Taylor said the application process alone revealed mental health issues facing youth, their families and friends. 

“A lot of the questions we asked were about mental health issues that they’ve experienced, or that loved ones have experienced, and what are some of the common stressors that they’re feeling right now. It was pretty amazing how many kids checked so many of the boxes,” she shared.

Students will discuss what they see as the most prevalent mental health issues within their schools and communities. 

“And we’re going to allow them the space to come up with what some solutions could be,” Taylor explained.

The second half of the workshop involves creating a project. “Some type of output from the day, whether that’s a video or t-shirts, or whatever the thing is, they will come up with some kind of a campaign to share with the community,” Taylor said.

In a public panel discussion on March 3, the students will present their projects at Here House in Aspen. 

Taylor said, “We’ll have different community leaders in the room, so they can hear [the students’] perspectives.”

The goal is that each attendee will walk away with a foundational knowledge of emotional and trauma literacy.

“Time to Talk” meetings are on the second Wednesday of each month, from 6 to 7 p.m. Registration is through Eventbrite, allowing you to sign up for multiple sessions. 

The next meeting is on Feb. 10. To register, or for more information about Aspen Strong, visit www.aspenstrong.org