The distribution of practicing mental health counselors throughout Colorado shows that the majority of the professionals are in the Denver and Colorado Springs metropolitan areas -- leaving huge geographical areas of the state without providers. Source: The Colorado Health Institute

Study: 30 percent of Coloradans need mental health care

By Cara DeGette
Colorado Public News

Nearly one in three Coloradans has some type of mental illness.

That’s according to a report released Wednesday by a group called Advancing Colorado’s Mental Health Care, funded by several Colorado-based foundations. The report estimates that 1.5 million residents need mental health care, including treatment for substance abuse. Nearly 1 in 12 – an estimated 450,000 Coloradans – are in severe need of mental health care.

“These numbers include mild, moderate and severe conditions,” said the principal author, Andrew Keller of the Boulder-based TriWest Group, a management consulting firm. The range includes “people with mild disorders to people who, without treatment, could lose their jobs, their marriages and maybe their kids,” he said.

Colorado ranks 32nd in the nation for public mental health care funding. The state ranks sixth for its rate of suicide.

The extensive report is part of a five-year, $4.25 million project that involved 89 organizations across the state, from mental health care providers to human services agencies.

It found that huge rural swaths of the state have little to no mental health care providers. Specifically, 86 percent of all the child psychiatrists, 82 percent of practicing psychiatrists and nearly all psychiatrists specializing in substance abuse work in the Denver and Colorado Springs metropolitan areas.

Fewer hospital beds are available for children, adolescents and seniors with mental health illnesses than a decade ago. Currently more than 50 percent of care for mental health and substance abuse in Colorado is delivered via primary care physicians – of which there is also a shortage.

Keller said the decrease in the number of hospital beds for people with severe mental illnesses is not necessarily a bad thing, as warehousing that segment of the population isn’t always the best option. However, he noted that health care professionals and policymakers have not done a good job at finding better solutions.

“Just because someone who is mentally ill is homeless doesn’t mean they need to be in a psychiatric hospital,” Keller said. “Maybe they just need a place to live.”

The per-capita number of Coloradans identified as needed mental health care has risen since 2003 – but that is because medical professionals now combine mental heath care with substance abuse, Keller said.

“We’ve come to understand in the past 15 years that there’s a big overlap of the two disorders, that we’re seeing the same people at different times,” he said. “So we really need to have the two systems work together.”

Keller said Advancing Colorado’s Mental Health Care is working to coordinate with health centers around Colorado to better provide mental health care in tandem with other health care providers. Primary care doctors, he said, often can detect mental health and substance abuse issues early, during routine checkups, and recommend treatments before things get out of hand.


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