The only stabilization unit in the state’s crisis services system, intended exclusively for teenagers, used to help approximately 2,000 children each year.
Now, due to a shortage of mental health workers, only 1,000 can suffice.
The other half of children and adolescents in mental health crises are sent elsewhere or, more likely, left waiting in hospital emergency rooms across Colorado.
It breaks my heart to talk about the children we have to turn away, said Kiara Kuenzler, CEO of Jefferson Center, a community mental health center that oversees the 24/7 crisis stabilization unit in Lakewood. We track every single person we are unable to serve. It is almost always due to lack of workforce capacity.
The unit, called New Vistas, has 16 beds for kids ages 5 to 18, but most of the time, there are only enough doctors and therapists to keep eight or 10 of those beds in use, Kuenzler said.
That’s where new funding from the Colorado side of the federal pandemic relief package should help. Jefferson Center is receiving $2 million to hire additional staff and offer incentives to keep current doctors on the payroll in what has long been a high-burnout career. The grant is part of more than $400 million in American Recovery Act funds that Colorado lawmakers have split for mental health care.
The State Behavioral Health Administration has awarded 80 grants to local governments, hospitals and community organizations to fill gaps in mental health care. These include Stride Sober Living, Naloxone Project, Young People in Recovery and Aspen Effect. Some grants go to create more psychiatric beds or residential beds that are one step down from a hospital, while others go to build substance abuse and therapy programs.
The administration also distributed 29 other grants to address mental health specifically for individuals in the criminal justice system.
New Rising 144-Bed Behavioral Health Hospital North of Denver
At the same time, some hospital systems in the state are making new investments in mental health care, fueling hopes that Colorado will make progress on its severe lack of services. The latest report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, which ranks states on behavioral health services, ranked Colorado 34th in the nation and counted 543 beds in the state.
That was about 10 beds per 100,000 people, far fewer than the 50 beds per 100,000 people mental health experts say are needed. The Denver area alone needs about 1,000 more beds, said Dr. Jeffrey Woods, group president of operations for Acadia Healthcare.
This is close to crisis level, he said.
Construction on a new 144-bed behavioral health hospital in Westminster started this month, a joint partnership between Acadia Healthcare and Intermountain Health, which was SCL Health.
West Pines Hospital will have inpatient psychiatric beds, as well as reduction programs for people who will live at home but spend several hours each day being treated at the hospital. The opening is scheduled for autumn 2024.
For too long, this shortage of behavioral health services has been available, due to stigma and a lack of public will to lower that stigma, Woods said.
However, that’s not a net gain of 144 beds for the North Denver area. With the opening of the new hospital, SCL Intermountain is expected to close its current 96-bed behavioral health unit at Lutheran Medical Center at Wheat Ridge, which is constructing a new hospital building.
While state and federal laws have attempted to create insurance parity by requiring insurance plans to cover mental health care similar to other medical care, that’s not what’s driving the new construction, Woods said.
I wouldn’t say there’s a rush to build hospitals because of profitability, but rather because there is a need, he said. We take care of the whole body, mind and spirit of the person.
The new West Pines will have units for children ages 5, teens, adults and seniors. One unit will specialize in treating older people with dementia along with pain, depression and mood disorders. Future units, similar to Acadias hospitals in other states, could focus on mothers with postpartum depression or people with intellectual disabilities and co-occurring mental health issues.
The breakthrough for the new hospital comes as UC Health University of Colorado Hospital prepares to open a new 40-bed psychiatric unit this summer.
72 youths died by suicide in Colorado in 2021
Even with the $2 million grant, the Teen Crisis Stabilization Unit in Lakewood will struggle, Kuenzler said.
The unit lost $2.5 million last year, and factoring in the subsidy and capacity-raising costs, the unit will lose between $1 million and $2 million, it said. Also, funding from the American Rescue Plan Act is one-time money.
We’re still struggling to figure out the sustainable funding model, she said, noting that a 24/7 crisis center needs to stay open whether it has two kids or all 16 beds are full on any given day. We hoped that over time there would be more funding at the state level.
It would pay off in so many lives saved and so much money saved in the long run.
New Vistas is a non-profit residential facility for children and adolescents that operated under a branch of Jefferson Center called Jefferson Hills. The mental health center is now absorbing the branch and trying to create a seamless system so that children can easily transition from the crisis stabilization unit to the therapy programs offered at the mental health center.
The stabilization unit in 2015 joined Colorado Crisis Services, a statewide network of walk-in crisis centers, mobile units, and a hotline. The system was created in response to the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora cinema. People can access services regardless of their ability to pay.
Expanding services, especially for youth, has never been more necessary, Kuenzler said.
In 2021, 53 young people aged 15 to 18 and 19 people aged 10 to 14 died by suicide in Colorado, according to the Jefferson Center.
The Crisis Stabilization Unit is seeing younger patients, including a dramatic increase in the number of children between the ages of 5 and 11. The proportion of children aged 5-11 was once 10-20%. Now, it’s 40-60%.
And children and adolescents referred to the unit have more acute problems than ever before, including more dangerous suicide attempts, Kuenzler said.
These are really young kiddos, she said. We need to do much more to invest early and often and with the right resources in behavioral health.
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