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Pikes Peak region tackling mental health challenges

July 12, 2013 Updated: July 12, 2013 at 6:10 pm
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The area's leading mental health providers on Friday unveiled their vision for addressing the Pikes Peak region's mounting mental health woes - the first local step in a state-wide push to revamp behavioral health care.

The ideas, presented Friday at a the Community Health Partnership's second Mental Health Summit - offered a snapshot of what local providers could pitch to the state in seeking their share of nearly $20 million in new state funding for behavioral health.

The most immediate recommendations - often centered around crisis intervention - include:

- A 24-hour hotline, one staffed by therapists and mental health professionals. This would be for an array of behavioral issues, in additional to the existing suicide prevention hotline.

- Teams of psychologists and clinicians dispatched to deal with the mentally ill, much like paramedics to a heart attack patient.

- A "stabilization unit" - one where the mentally ill could be observed and treated for up to 72 hours.

- Establishing a one-stop resource to help residents find behavioral health care.

The next several weeks could determine how many of those recommendations become practice.

On Thursday, the Colorado Department of Human Services asked for grant applications to fund $19.8 million on behavioral health reforms across the state - the result of a push by Gov. John Hickenlooper and after the multiple mass shootings.

Local health care professionals said the funding is exactly what's needed to kick-start long overdue reforms across the Pikes Peak region.

"If we're able to get our hands around the crisis (intervention), that moves us along right away - that's significant," said Carol Bruce-Fritz, executive director of Community Health Partnership. "It's because most of us come to the realization that we need help through a crisis. It really is fundamental."

The local effort began with a summit in October involving 110 behavioral health leaders, who discussed how to deal with the mental illnesses across the region.

They found immense challenges.

Task forces created by the summit said the region's network of service was often difficult to navigate.

While participants bemoaned the lack of El Paso County-specific data, a 2009-2010 study by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System that about one in five people in the county reported one or more days with poor mental health over a month-long span.

Among the most troubling issues was suicide, especially among the veteran population.

Overall, suicide has been a chronic problem here. El Paso County and Colorado averaged about 18 suicides per 100,000 in 2011, according to the Office of Suicide Prevention -- a rate that, along with other western U.S. states, has been above the national average.

The problem becomes compounded when given that the region lacks the needed people who are able to prescribe psychiatric drugs, said Brian DeSantis, director of psychology for Peak Vista Community Health Centers.

The shortage has created a barrier to care for the uninsured, who often require free care , he said. The region also lacks training opportunities needed to boost the mental health workforce.

Two months after the group's first meeting, Hickenlooper proposed a five-point, $18.5 million plan to address mental health across the state, a response to mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown, Conn.

Lawmakers later passed legislation this spring setting aside the grant money to enact the reforms.

Funding lies at the crux of the issue, experts said Friday.

Bruce-Fritz said she is unsure which organization will lead the grant application process. She expects to have a better idea of who would apply in a few days, and planning meetings could begin early next week.

But even if local behavioral health professionals get a slice of the state's $20 million fund, organizers say they'll still need more funding at the local level to keep the programs going.

"We have real (funding) challenges in Colorado Springs," said Kelly Phillips-Henry, chief operating officer of AspenPointe. "This going forward is going to be no different....This is not going to be a cheap investment, but it's the most important investment that Colorado Springs needs in the next month, is for serious conversations to take place, to get the system that we know will work up and running."

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Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

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