AN ONGOING SERIES BY THE GAZETTE

MENTAL HEALTH: A CRISIS IN COLORADO

About the series: This is a yearlong series of stories about Colorado’s broken mental health care system. A team of Gazette journalists is investigating the gaps in care for children, for veterans, for the community at large. We’ll be focusing on solutions that might come as state officials and community leaders sharpen their focus on what for many is a vicious cycle of despair and ruin.

This is the first in a yearlong series of stories about Colorado’s broken mental health care system. It’s estimated that about 20% of Colorado’s adult population is living with some kind of mental health condition, according to a 2019 report from Mental Health America. 

More than 4,000 Colorado children each year have an ongoing behavioral health condition or serious emotional disturbance that requires  inpatient or residential treatment, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado, one of the state’s largest pediatric health care providers.

Mentally ill people are wasting away in Colorado jails and crowding the state’s prisons, paving the way for disasters by making correctional workers de-facto practitioners in what critics say is perhaps the worst possible environment to treat psychiatric issues.

The unabated pace of mental health emergencies strains public agencies and fails people in need, who are at risk of being drawn into a well-worn cycle — delivered to frantic emergency rooms, where follow-up care is scant, or locked up in jail, where their problems compound.

Stigma, insurance woes, cost and lack of providers are the top barriers for seeking mental health care as an estimated 832,000 people in Colorado have some kind of mental health condition, a Mental Health America report found, and nearly 450,000 of them aren’t being treated.

When they’re active duty, members of the U.S. military have access to some of the best mental health care in the country. But the minute those warriors step back into the civilian world, things often fall apart.

The Gazette’s yearlong investigative series on mental health care in Colorado began in April. Since then, dozens of readers have shared personal accounts about living with a mood disorder or mental illness and the challenges of accessing treatment. 

In southwest Colorado, the suicide rate is 31.8 per 100,000 residents, compared with a 20.2 per 100,000 statewide — which is 10th highest among the states. On the eastern plains, in a statistical region that includes Elbert, Lincoln, Kit Carson and Cheyenne counties, the rate is 28.7.

People with mental health concerns, seeking help, often turn to a faith leader first, according to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. But in doing so, they may not find what they need.

Public school districts statewide and in the Pikes Peak region need to hire thousands of counselors and other mental health professionals to meet national staffing standards, according to a Gazette analysis of data from a 2019 Mental Health Colorado report.

Deep within the Cook County jail, white-walled dormitories have replaced steel-barred cells. In a division of the jail known as the Residential Treatment Unit, jailers are trained to act more like therapists than guards. Inmates are considered patients, and a licensed counselor sits as warde…

A nonprofit in Tulsa that provides hundreds of affordable housing units to people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse has earned a growing reputation for addressing mental health's many tendrils. And some people in Colorado Springs have taken notice. 

“The paradise paradox is very real,” Eagle Valley Behavioral Health Executive Director Chris Lindley said. “While the mountains are a great place to live, they are also a hard place to live. People often come to the mountains seeking a geographic solution to a nongeographic problem...”

About half the children who take their lives had seen a doctor within the past month. Would a more robust — even universal — mental health screening process for children, not just those with predetermined psychiatric issues, help ward off deaths by suicide?

In a massive survey of Coloradans about access to health care, the state’s Medicaid patients reported mental health and substance abuse problems two to three times as frequently as those with employer-provided insurance, individually purchased insurance or Medicare.

“Mental illness is not a partisan issue,” Commissioner Steve Johnson said. "You have to have a good solution and you have to have good public awareness campaign. If you have those two things, there’s a good chance you’ll be successful.”

Across sunny South Beach, Little Havana and the rest of sprawling Miami-Dade County exists a program that prioritizes treatment for some of Miami’s most mentally ill defendants over plea deals, convictions and extended jail time.

Athletes forced to leave their sports, through injury, graduation or retirement, routinely battle depression and anxiety. It affects elites and amateurs of all ages, across the spectrum of sport, gender and competitiveness.

FROM THE GAZETTE EDITORIAL BOARD

A 16-part series by The Gazette, published throughout 2019, documents a deadly dearth of mental health care. Legislators and Gov. Jared Polis responded with legislation to address the issue and plan considerably more as they head toward the 2020 legislative session that begins Jan. 8.

The Gazette has complained for years about society’s irrational efforts to solve the health care crisis. Politicians and pundits talk about who should pay, who should not pay, and how we might better allocate and redistribute access to limited health care services.