Summit County to build acute treatment facility for mental health crises

The Medical Office Building next to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco will be home to a new Acute Treatment Unit where individuals going through a mental health crisis can be properly treated.
Summit Daily file photo

A mental health crisis is terrifying for everyone involved.

First and foremost is the terror for the person going through the crisis. They may not understand why they are feeling and acting the way they are, and might feel like a hostage of their own mind. They might harm themselves or others and not truly comprehend how or why.

Then there’s the first responder, usually a police officer, who is called to investigate. Within moments, they have to make critical decisions about how to handle the situation. If the matter can be dealt with peaceably, but the crisis is ongoing, the responder must decide how to keep that person from hurting themselves or others. Often, that means placing the person in crisis under an “emergency mental health hold,” which allows authorities to take a person into custody for up to 72 hours for their own safety and the safety of others.

Until now, Summit County hasn’t had the facility or resources to properly handle mental health holds. In October, that will change when an Acute Treatment Unit is built. It will become a regional facility where people undergoing a mental health crisis can be taken for proper evaluation and treatment.

The unit will be a welcome addition for Summit County, where, until a few years ago, people going through a mental health crisis were locked into the county jail for evaluation and observation.

According to Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, when he became the county’s top law enforcement officer a few years ago, he decided it was time to end that practice.

“I decided we needed to stop putting people without criminal charges into the jail, starting with people going through a mental health crisis,” FitzSimons said. “There’s no good ending to putting them in a jail cell. It’s not the right environment for people going through a crisis.”

The Sheriff’s Office collaborated with St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and Mind Springs Health to find a better solution. At the moment, that involves taking people in crisis to St. Anthony’s emergency room, where a Mind Springs clinician can evaluate the person and decide whether they should be allowed to go home or be transported to a behavioral health treatment facility somewhere in the state, if one is available.

FitzSimons also directed that persons undergoing a mental health crisis, who aren’t charged with crimes nor at risk of serious violence, be taken to the ER in an ambulance and not a squad car.

“If you think about it, if you’re in crisis and already highly upset and agitated, and I tell you that they need to be cuffed and put into the back of a patrol car, how is that helping?” FitzSimons asked. “Again, why are we treating people in mental health crisis as criminals?”

Despite the improvement in procedure, FitzSimons said it is still not ideal, as the hospital is not equipped or staffed to handle individuals who are possibly suicidal or violent toward others, as persons in crisis sometimes are.

Even if the short-term solution was not optimal, the sheriff was ahead of the curve in Colorado. Senate Bill 17-207, which FitzSimons called a “game-changer,” shored up the behavioral health crisis response procedures in the state. Among the provisions is the end to the use of jails and correctional facilities as placement options for individuals placed on emergency mental health holds, if they have not also been charged with a crime. The bill also established transport and care protocols to help individuals in crisis safely get help while minimizing harm and the risk of violating their rights.

The state also provided funds to counties and towns to help them put these new policies into practice. Those funds will build an Acute Treatment Unit with six beds and 24/7 health provider supervision that will help stabilize the patient and help them survive the crisis, or transport them to a higher level treatment facility if need be. The unit will be housed in the Medical Office Building next to St. Anthony, behind Mind Springs Health.

It’s a lot safer and more comfortable for a person going through a crisis than the emergency room. FitzSimons expects the unit to open in September or October.

“This Acute Treatment Unit will be a game-changer in Summit County,” FitzSimons said. “Now, not only do we have resources for people who are thinking about self-harm or depressed, but we will also have somewhere for people who are in an active crisis to go where they can be safe and get help.”

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