State of mental health on display at Douglas County summit

County hosts annual event aimed at addressing growing crisis

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The annual Douglas County Mental Health Summit focused on the need for collaboration to address the state’s mental health crisis, obstacles in getting help to veterans, alcohol and substance abuse care, and issues facing local youths.

The 2021 summit, held on Sept. 23 in Parker, was hosted by the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative (DCMHI) and the Douglas County commissioners.

Community collaboration

Attending the summit to discuss the importance of community collaboration to attack the growing mental health crisis in Colorado and nationwide were Shannon Breitzman, principal of Health Management Associates, and Laura Ciancone, coordinator of DCMHI.

Breitzman commended the work Douglas County has put into developing a mental health program that works because they have partnered with organizations, programs, and government agencies that all have the same goal to help citizens suffering from all levels of mental illness.

Breitzman said Colorado and the nation are still falling behind in treating mental illness. About 20% of sick days are due to mental illness, she said. Globally, only 10% of those suffering from mental illness get help, she added.

In Colorado, Breitzman said 15.3% of the adult population admitted they suffered from poor mental health in 2019. About 26.9% of the adult population in Colorado admitted they personally are addicted to drugs or alcohol or know of a friend or family member who is.

“Mental health is as important as physical health,” Breitzman said. “Poor mental health only increases the risk of poor physical health such as a stroke, heart disease or diabetes.”

To address the growing crisis, Breitzman said communities should be equipped to help patients in need through the long haul, meaning not just in a day of crisis, but through the process of getting well.

In Douglas County, Ciacone said, it took a lot of work to develop a system that involved collaborating with more than 40 community partnerships that all work toward the common goal of improving the health outcomes for citizens.

The program works to address unmet mental health needs by connecting people to services, expanding access to care, and preventing those in need of services from falling through the cracks.

Ciacone said that when the Douglas County Commissioners directed staff to develop the mental health initiative seven years ago, the process mapping and work at the beginning is a large part of the program’s long-term success.

With partnerships across 24 sectors, including health care, law enforcement, social services, and education, Ciacone said all of them have a “true” interest in improving mental health outcomes for all ages.

“All voices matter in making sure to effectively leverage talents and strengths in each partnership,” she said.

State behavioral health care

Dr. Robert Werthwein, director of the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health, spoke about the state of mental health care in the state and reform efforts that are currently under way.

Werthwein was honest with the large group of summit attendees — Colorado is not doing a good enough job to address the growing crisis. Colorado continues to rank at the bottom of identifying who needs behavioral health services and then treating those who are identified, he said.

“We have gotten better at identifying who needs help,” he said, “but not at getting the help they need.”

Werthwein estimated that one in five Colorado residents needs mental health services. The problem, he said, is the state does not have the facilities and resources to get help to more than a million people.

The result, Werthwein said, is the court system and criminal justice systems are being overburdened with people who should not be arrested because they just need mental health care.

“We are not perfect, but it is important that we work to clean our own house,” he said. “It is a lot of pressure when the ask exceeds the number of resources we have.”

As of Sept. 23, Werthwein said there are 342 people sitting in Colorado jails waiting for a hospital. Of those, two died by suicide before help arrived, he said.

Before COVID, on a given day, about 50 people were sitting in Colorado jails awaiting services, Werthwein said.

With Gov. Jared Polis creating a mental health task force to get the state’s issues in order, Werthwein said it is going to be important to get all agencies and programs on the same page.

“Currently, each agency is trying to solve the mental health problem alone,” he said. “They are competing against each other because we are not talking about how to address the issues together.”

At the state level, Werthwein said, the only way things are going to turn around is for them to completely rebuild the behavioral health system’s infrastructure.

Veteran care

As a veteran himself, Douglas County Commissioner George Teal said discussions about improving the mental health care system must include how to improve care for veterans.

“With veterans, it is not a mental illness as much as it is a mental injury,” Teal said.

Benjamin Kremer, the acting suicide prevention program manager for Veterans Affair Medical Center in Aurora, said the problem with veterans has a lot to do with identifying those in need.

Kremer said 50% of veterans who qualify for benefits do not use them.

“Communities need to make sure veterans are getting the care they need,” he said. “About 11 in 17 veterans are not even involved in the health-care system at all.”

Substance and alcohol abuse

Substance and alcohol abuse is a growing worry for those in the mental health care field. Daniel Darting, CEO of Signal Behavioral Health Network, said the state must improve the level of services and available resources for citizens suffering from addiction.

“There is a tremendous cost in delayed care,” Darting said. “People reach out for help and even though I am knowledgeable of services, I am hard pressed to help them because of the lack of them.”

The fiscal impact of not investing in resources and programs to address a crisis that was only exacerbated by the pandemic is going to have big consequences on all communities in the future, Darting said.

Youth impact

To discuss how mental health issues are impacting the state’s youths, Lone Tree Assistant City Manager Austin Good introduced members of the city’s Youth Council.

Laura Pulido, a Highlands Ranch High School sophomore, said the pandemic has had a big impact on students. Students experience a variety of emotions and stress, especially in dealing with feelings of isolation and anxiety, she said.

Pulido said high school students have often felt like they are losing what is supposed to be the best parts of their childhoods because of a pandemic.

Madeline Geiser, of St. Mary’s Academy in Cherry Hills Village, said nearly two years of remote learning impacted student relationships, friendships and connections to family members, leaving students to feel detached.

In taking questions, Geiser and Pulido were asked about how social media and cell phones impact youth mental health.

Pulido said because of how much cyber bullying and social media can impact the well-being of a student, she recommends parents not get their children cell phones until they are at least 13 or 14. Younger, elementary school students, are not ready for social media and the internet, she said.

Geiser said she agrees that social media and the internet can impact a student’s mental health but said students having phones should be based on families and how involved parents are in what students are doing online.

At all ages, Pulido recommended parents get tracking software on their children’s phones.

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