Best of the West: Regional plans to address behavioral health; combining solar and oil wells; technology to settle the moon; skiing with a horse

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting March 14, 2022. (Photos courtesy of  Los Angeles Times/CC0 Public Domain, Karin Zeitvogel/The Pueblo Chieftain and Skijor USA). 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness, along with one in six adolescents. Behavioral health is a critical issue to Western Governors — as seen in the WGA policy resolution, Physical and Behavioral Health Care in the West. 

As youth behavioral health struggles became more apparent throughout the pandemic, western states are committed to expanding access to care, as discussed in the Out West podcast On the Mind: Youth Behavioral Health Care Access.’ 

In Colorado, the Department of Human Services launched a free mental health support line that connects parents and caregivers of children ages six and younger to mental health resources. Oklahoma's planned Impact Accelerator Program will focus on access to behavioral health services by offering young adults ages 18 to 25 who are transitioning out of child welfare or juvenile justice situations with housing, physical and behavioral health services, substance misuse treatment, employment support, coordinated care and connection to social supports. Several rural schools in Texas are offering virtual behavioral health sessions to middle and high school students through the Telemedicine, Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral Project. Colleges are joining the effort to help youth too. The University of Oregon received a $425 million gift to build the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health. The institute will partner with Portland Public Schools and plans to create programs that provide behavioral resources for K-12 students.

Substance misuse is another concern western states are tackling. The North Dakota Department of Human Services Behavioral Health Division awarded $1.6 million to the Heartview Foundation, a nonprofit that's renovating a hospital to provide access to treatment for adults struggling with addiction. The Utah Department of Human Resources is awarding $4 million to substance misuse organizations that use exercise as a tool to cope with addiction. 

Employees in different industries, like health care, are facing mental health struggles, and many agricultural professionals are experiencing similar feelings. The New Mexico Department of Agriculture awarded the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network program $500,000 to provide farmers and ranchers with access to mental health resources, including behavioral health counseling, telephone helplines, websites, training programs, support groups, outreach services and activities. South Dakota’s Department of Social Services and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture are providing farmers, ranchers and families with access to counseling services, including telehealth sessions, through the Agriculture Behavioral Health Voucher Program.

Workforce shortages are also a contributing factor to accessing care. In response, Western Governors University, one of the nation’s largest nursing schools in the country with 26,000 current students, introduced a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program to address the issue.

Solving Solar Storage with Oil Wells: As the renewable energy industry grows, long-term solar power storage is a major barrier to adoption. Hyperlight Energy out of California is partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado to research combining solar and oil wells to create long-term storage. The concept is like harnessing geothermal energy and would use subterrianian rock formations in existing oil wells as solar thermal wellsprings, where solar-produced heat can be safley stored. NREL found that Hyperlight’s “Tectonic Sun” storage system could produce emissions-free electricity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Drinking Rural Water: Pueblo County in Colorado is upgrading water infrastructure by investing  a significant chunk of the $12.7 million the county received from the American Rescue Plan towards improving drinking water in rural communities. One of the projects, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which is connected to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Arkansas Valley Conduit project, will bring reliable water to about 1,800 rural residents. “Parts of Pueblo County feel forgotten about at times so we are really proud to be able to do that because, without these reliable and sustainable water systems, those communities would struggle to exist,” Garrison Ortiz chairman of the Pueblo County Commission, said.   

The UPS and FedEx of the Moon: California startup, Astrolab, is developing technology that could make settlement on the moon possible, including an all-purpose truck that would help build infrastructure and transport astronauts around the celestial body. NASA’s Artemis program plans to send humans back to the moon by 2025 to sustain a lunar presence — a plan that companies like Astrolab see as a significant business opportunity. "This is going to become part of human commerce and human geography,” Chris Hadfield, a retired Canadian astronaut and advisory board member for Astrolab. Western companies Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are also developing similar technology.

Skiing With a Twist: Red Lodge, Montana, recently hosted the National Finals Skijoring Race, a  niche sport that requires cooperation between two species. Derived from the Norwegian word snørekjøring, which means ‘ski driving,’ teams consist of horses, riders and skiers. The riders and horses pull skiers around a course filled with challenging jumps and slalom runs. “You can make all of the plans that you want, but once that rope goes tight and that horse takes off, it’s kind of ‘let’s see what happens,’" said Duffy Counsell, a 13-year veteran of the niche sport. Learn more

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