Members of the health advocacy group Healthier Colorado walked from Cortez to Durango last week to show how far some residents in Southwest Colorado must travel for behavioral and mental health care.
The nonprofit organization held similar walks across Colorado to highlight the difficulties some residents in rural communities face getting care in the state’s 47 rural counties where there is one behavioral health care provider for every 6,008. That ratio is cut nearly in half in urban areas.
Healthier Colorado’s representatives said 82 percent of the state’s psychiatrists are in Denver and Colorado Springs while 12 counties are without a licensed psychologist and 13 counties are without a hospital, and the disparity should be addressed this legislative cycle.
“Contrary to what most people understand about Colorado, the state has challenges,” said executive director Jake Williams. “Small and rural communities around Colorado have a tougher time than we do here sitting in Denver.”
However, Sarada Leavenworth, senior director of strategy, development and communications for Axis Health System in Durango, said Monday that although raising the issue of mental health care access is important, the services Healthier Colorado call for are available in Southwest Colorado.
Axis, the primary caregiver for behavioral and mental care in the five-county region – Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties – offers an Acute Treatment Unit, a psychiatric care facility established in 2006.
The facility, in Three Springs near Mercy Regional Medical Center, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, “with the intention of being there when individual with a mental health crisis needs it most,” Leavenworth said.
To provide care for patients who might have trouble reaching the treatment unit, Leavenworth said health officials launched a “Mobile Crisis Team,” which works with local partners to coordinate transport.
“Regardless of where someone is, our 24-hour crisis line is often the first doorway to care for someone needing mental health, behavioral or substance-abuse treatment services,” she said.
“Our area is a good example how a community can rally and work together to resolve some of these access issues,” Leavenworth said.
Leavenworth said a 24/7 detox facility is a safe option for individuals who need immediate care. The facility also can link patients to longer-term care.
“Of course, we want to support advocacy efforts across the state to identify what needs exist, and how to best respond to them,” Leavenworth said of Healthier Colorado’s walk.
Health officials at Axis said for Southwest Colorado advocacy would be better focused at increasing capacity at state hospitals for longer-term care.
The “In Our Shoes” walk took two Healthier Colorado staffers from Cortez, along U.S. Highway 160 to Hesperus, and then along County Road 125, through Wildcat Canyon, eventually reaching the Animas River trail to Three Springs.
“It was pretty positive,” said Kate Stigberg, director of activism for Healthier Colorado. “People were really excited we were doing this and bringing attention to the issue.”
This legislative session, Healthier Colorado is advocating a bill that would increase resources for equal mental health services for residents in the state.
According to Healthier Colorado’s Amy Fletcher Faircloth, funding from a new tax on tobacco could yield $315 million in revenue – $34 million to increase access to health care (including mental health) in rural and underserved areas; $34 million to expand access to youth behavioral health services statewide; and $17 million to provide training and repay student debt for medical professionals (including mental health) in rural and underserved areas.