The past year has been incredibly difficult for Coloradans to cope with. Along with an unprecedented pandemic that led to lockdowns, cuts in services, death, illness, job loss and more, the state has also experienced massive wildfires, calls for social justice reforms, a contentious 2020 election, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and two mass shootings.
Any one of these events is enough to cause someone to need counseling from a mental health professional. Collectively, these events have led to an increase in the number of people in the state screening positive for stress and anxiety, according to Mental Health Colorado.
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“We are providing more services now than we were prior to the pandemic starting,” said Dr. Carl Clark, the president and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver. “It’s not only that more people are coming in, people are not leaving as quickly either because of sort of the ongoing stress that’s going on, and crisis calls are 30% higher now than they were a year ago.”
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, during the pandemic, 41% of adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder as compared to 11% of adults in 2019.
Colorado ranks 47th in the nation overall for its handling of mental health needs in the state. The ranking system looks at things like access to care, mental health workforce availability, youth rates and more.
Despite the increasing need, Colorado is also dealing with a mental health provider shortage. Dr. Clark and others consider the mental health shortage in the state a crisis, saying during the pandemic the state was keeping track of hospital bed capacity, but the state already breached its capacity for behavioral health help years ago.
“We get calls all the time where people with insurance can’t find a provider. They’re going to the provider list provided by their health plan, and they’ll call us and say, 'We have called everybody on this list and no one is taking patients,'” Clark said.
The waitlists are longer in rural areas where access to care is more limited.
Clark has a friend on the Western Slope who was told she would need to wait for eight months in order to be able to see someone to help her with her depression.
Others like Vincent Atchity, the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, have seen wait times range from 60 to 90 days depending on the circumstance.
There are immediate services like the Colorado Crisis Services hotline for someone who needs help right away. However, after the immediate threat is over, finding long-term, more sustainable help can also be a challenge.
Atchity knows of one family who was trying to get help for their suicidal teenager recently. The family received immediate services through the crisis line but then had to wait for more than 30 days in order to get the teenager in to see a psychiatrist.
“Imagine the state of distress of that family of a month of time where they didn’t want to let their teenager out of sight or would check on them at night and would have a hard time just getting from one day to the next while waiting for that kind of access to care. It can be deadly, that kind of delay,” Atchity said.
One of the longest waitlists for mental health services in the state might be within the jail system. Atchity says there is a substantial list of people who are being held in pre-trial services that are waiting for a mental health competency evaluation before standing trial.
The state has been sued multiple times in the past for the time it takes to receive mental health services in jail. There’s also a waiting list for access to inpatient psychiatric care.
Part of the reason Clark attributes to the shortage is the lower pay mental health professionals receive as opposed to their colleagues. Health insurance plans tend reimburse at a lower rate for mental health than physical health.
“Pay is a big issue in behavioral health. So, when new students come out with a degree in social work, they often have spent $160,000, and they have that much in loans and they’re going into a job that does not pay that well,” Clark said.
There’s also a risk of high burnout rates in the field with a high volume of patients needing help and the extent of their needs.
Technology is helping. Telehealth services and online tools have made it easier for behavioral health professionals to reach more people quickly. Colorado lawmakers have also introduced a number of bills to try to provide more resources for behavioral health.
Still, the needs and the shortage persist.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need immediate help, reach out to the Colorado Crisis Services Hotline at 1(844) 493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.