Come together
As Colorado struggles with mental health needs, experts point out it's people who make the difference

Come together

Photo Illustration by Jennaye Derge

Tracy Chamberlin - 05/17/2018

Ever have a bad day? A tough time? Or a year you'd rather forget? Guess what, so has everyone else. It doesn't matter where someone lives, if they're married, single, divorced or widowed.

Stress, anxiety, depression, emotional disorders, substance abuse and suicide affects every person in some way.

“People feel really isolated, like they’re the only ones going through this,” Stephanie Allred, senior clinical director for Axis Health System, said. “And they’re not.”

Reaching out – whether it’s to lend a hand or take hold of one – can make all the difference when someone is having a bad day.

In the midst of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, that’s the message from health care professionals in the Southwest who are trying to tackle the myriad of challenges this area faces when it comes to mental health care. Among all of them, the common thread was community.

The challenges ahead

Many people think of Colorado as a healthy state. With plenty of places to hike, bike and simply enjoy the scenery, it must rival Disney as the happiest place on Earth. But, it turns out, this state is struggling when it comes to mental health.

In a recent report, Colorado ranked 43rd in the United States when it comes to mental health. The report from Mental Health America, a national nonprofit based in Virginia, compiled the numbers for mental illness among adults and youth, suicides, substance abuse and access to care. The low overall ranking for Colorado indicates that mental illness is more prevalent and access to care is more limited than in other states.

This is certainly true for the Southwest.

In a recent survey from the Colorado Health Institute, a Denver-based nonprofit, residents in this part of the state said they were unable to get help.

“People in Southwestern Colorado ... report not getting needed mental health services at the highest rates, with more than nine percent of residents saying they did not get needed care,” the survey reads.

No one’s been able to nail down exactly why people aren’t getting that care. Some of the likely factors are income levels, cost for care, availability of providers and appointments, insurance coverage, and the stigma of mental health.

Laura Warner, director of health promotion services at San Juan Basin Health, said all of these are likely true for the area, at least to some degree.

The high cost of living and lack of affordable housing are constant battles for this community. It’s not just something that makes it hard for residents to budget for needed health care, it also makes it challenging to attract and hold onto employees, which makes it harder to find a provider.

Some things are looking up, though, particularly when it comes to insurance coverage. Overall access to care has been improving since 2013, when the Colorado Health Institute began collecting data, and a record-high 93.5 percent of Coloradans now have health insurance.

Even if residents have coverage and access, however, 

it doesn’t mean they are ready to ask for the help they need. “One of the biggest challenges is having a willingness to seek out care,” Allred explained.

Changing perspectives

At this point, people don’t call up a therapist or another type of mental health professional like they would to schedule a physical.

Allred said one study showed many people actually waited 10 years before getting help with depression. “The earlier we can identify and intervene, the better,” she said.

With that in mind, health professionals are taking a different approach to mental health care – making it part of a regular doctor’s visit. Anyone who’s been to see a doctor lately has been asked a series of questions about mental health, depression and suicide. It’s called integrative care, and the idea is to combine primary care and mental health.

It’s all part of treating the whole person, instead of looking at mental and physical health as different parts.

According to the survey from the Colorado Health Institute, mental health and physical health are not exclusive to one another. They are, in fact, strongly linked.

“People in poor physical health report poor mental health at four times the rate of those in good physical health (and) the reverse is also true ... The connection between the two seems to point both to the stresses that can come along with health challenges and to the toll mental health challenges can take on the physical body,” the report reads.

This mind-body connection means there are real, tangible benefits to treating the whole person.

Even the courts are trying to take this kind of approach. Special courts have been created in the United States to try and address cases where mental health and criminal activity intersect. They are called Problem Solving Courts.

Unlike traditional courts, the idea is to merge treatment and criminal justice. According to the Colorado Judicial Branch, 80 of these courts were operating in the state last year, three of which are in La Plata County: an Adult Drug Court, DUI Court, and Mental Health Court.

According to Mental Health America, more than half of all Americans in prison or jail have a mental illness. Researchers are also finding those individuals typically get involved in the criminal justice system by committing low-level offenses like disorderly conduct or trespassing. And, with each offense it becomes harder and harder to break the cycle – unless these individuals can find treatment along the way.

Allred agreed that some individuals behind bars need treatment, not incarceration. Trying to address both issues simultaneously is what inspired the creation of the Problem Solving courts.

It’s not known at this point how affective these courts really are, but it does indicate a change in the way mental

health is being addressed in the justice system. Changing the way people see mental health – as a part of someone’s overall well-being, as a necessary part of rehabilitation in the courts, and as a common part of everyday life – seems to be the first step to overcoming obstacles and getting people the care they need.

“Don’t look at this as an issue someone else needs to solve,” Warner said. “We all have to do it together.”