In emotional and sometimes tearful testimony, residents told state officials Tuesday the behavioral health system in Southwest Colorado is understaffed and unable to provide sufficient care for everyone in need.
Concerned mental health patients, health care providers and parents of mentally ill children called for reform to address the shortage of providers and increase access to preventive behavioral health care at a meeting hosted by the Behavioral Health Task Force.
The state’s task force was formed by Gov. Jared Polis in April to develop a set of recommendations for improving the behavioral health system in the state by June 2020.
“Today is not to solve the problem; it’s to understand the system,” said Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services.
La Plata County resident Douglas McCarthy told state officials his experience with the health care system while caring for a son with behavioral and emotional needs was like rafting a river without a life preserver, paddle, helmet or instruction.
“He was known to the child welfare system since birth as having neurodevelopmental trauma. And yet there was no coordinated effort to create a plan for addressing his needs,” he said.
In his experience, the mental system tends to be reactive and insufficient for children. In two cases, he was directed to call 911 to ask law enforcement to transport his son to the hospital because no alternative was available.
The system asked the McCarthys to prove their need for assistance through escalating crises, he said.
So, the couple sent their son to an outdoor therapy program and then to a therapeutic boarding school, where he is making progress, McCarthy said.
On behalf of similar families, McCarthy called on the state to create a responsive behavioral health system that will provide proactive planning and coordinated services.
Carriefrances Counley said she struggled trying find care for her mom who was facing depression.
Before appropriate care could be found, the woman’s mental health declined until she almost died by suicide and had to be admitted for inpatient care, she said.
“Why do we have to wait till crisis? Why can’t we intervene early?” Counley said.
Counley called for the state to work on national reform that would dedicate additional funding for mental health treatment among Medicare patients and to allow a broader spectrum of providers to care for them to increase the treatment available to older and disabled patients.
In Montezuma County, the shortage of behavioral health professionals is pronounced, said Annie Diaz, the only licensed counselor with the Montezuma County Social Services Child Welfare Department.
To prepare her testimony, Diaz spoke with foster and adoptive parents who told her: “There truly is a frightening shortage of mental health professionals for this area.”
Schools and health care agencies, such as Axis Health System, struggle to recruit and retain qualified staff, she said. Diaz previously worked for Axis and found it challenging, she said.
“I frequently felt overwhelmed with an extremely high case load and inability to see people with enough regularity to make a significant difference,” she said.
Montezuma County would benefit from more psychiatric services, better distribution of services, more opportunities for collaboration and higher salaries and incentives for health care providers, among other changes, she said.
Despite the challenges, Diaz said she is inspired by her work.
“I feel truly honored to work with amazing, resilient children and their families, who are trying against all odds to recover from, oftentimes, generations of poverty, substance abuse and trauma,” she said.