Mental illness “an epidemic” in Summit County
August 20, 2016
As many as 45 residents and local officials gathered at the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco on Thursday for a discussion of mental health issues. The event was part of a statewide listening tour by advocacy group Mental Health Colorado, which hopes to better understand obstacles to mental health care and how to address them.
Summit County is ready to talk. The suicide rate here has climbed at an alarming rate. Substance abuse, particularly the menace of opioid addiction, is roiling communities nationwide, and the High Rockies are no exception. Compounded with the county's relatively weak mental health infrastructure and abnormally high uninsured rate, it all paints an alarming picture. Thankfully, however, the public seems eager to tackle these challenges.
"We had a terrific turnout," said Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the Colorado House and current president of Mental Health Colorado. "It's a testament to people's passion for this issue."
For Romanoff, tackling stigma and barriers to care took on a whole new dimension last year, when he suddenly lost a beloved relative to suicide. He and his family were completely blindsided by the event. In a note, the relative revealed that she had been concealing her struggles with depression and asked the family fabricate a story about her death.
"We discussed it for about a minute and decided we couldn't do that," said Romanoff. "We decided we had to tell people, 'this is what happens when mental illness goes undiagnosed. This is what happens when it goes untreated.'"
In the small communities that dot Summit County, this problem of stigma and shame can be particularly pronounced. As one meeting attendee noted, "Everyone here knows your business."
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Roughly 60 percent of people who need mental health treatment aren't getting it, according to Mental Health Colorado. While there are some common barriers to care — such as cost and access — the group intends to identify more specific factors that affect different localities.
In Summit County, the uninsured rate stands at a staggering 20 percent compared with the state average of 6 percent. (The national rate is 11 percent.) Even with insurance, however, cost of care can be prohibitively expensive. If a provider is out of a person's network, they have to pay full price. And for those with high-deductible plans, visits are effectively paid for out-of-pocket — a huge barrier for people who need monthly or even weekly visits.
In a survey conducted at the meetings, cost was the most commonly cited obstacle to care, followed by lack of coverage through insurance and lack of insurance altogether. For kids, the most cited barrier was that parents simply don't know where to take their children for treatment.
"I think there are enough providers. There just aren't enough that can deliver care at an affordable price," said Sarah Vaine, the former CEO of the Summit County Care Clinic who now serves as assistant county manager. "And they can't do it for free, of course."
Summit County has no psychiatric beds, which means that when a person is in crisis, they often fall into the lap of law enforcement. Thus, in an odd twist, the Sheriff's Office serves as the county's largest mental health provider, a role it is neither mandated nor fully equipped to fill.
"Jails are the most expensive and least therapeutic places to treat mental health crises," said Romanoff. "But when there's nowhere else to go, it's where people end up."
"We are not the answer to this problem,'" said interim Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. "But here we are on the front lines of this. We do the best we can, but it's not what we're trained to do."
Commander Erik Bourgerie, head of the detention division at the Sheriff's Office, and Silverthorne police chief John Minor — who was sheriff until two months ago — also attended the meeting. Minor said the three lawmen have been discussing ways they can start diverting people from jail who would be better served by mental health professionals.
"Colorado is 48th in the nation for mental health funding, and that's something we see on the streets," he said. "We've got to do better."
There are reasons to be hopeful, however. Some local interventions, such as placing mental health professionals in schools, have shown to be effective ways of increasing access to care. Research shows children are nine times as likely to follow through on mental health referrals when they can see a professional on-site rather than across town.
"There are some things that are working well locally, but there just isn't enough funding," said Vaine. She notes that, by the numbers, mental health care has not been a budget priority for Colorado.
Hoping to address this funding gap, Mental Health Colorado is campaigning for a ballot measure that would increase taxes on tobacco products and raise an estimated $315 million annually. Part of that revenue would be used to expand access to youth mental health services, increase access to health care in rural areas and incentivize medical professionals to work in underserved areas.
Betty Sarber, a local resident who works with the advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness, said was very glad to see the public talking about mental health issues so openly. She stressed the importance of not only preventive treatment but also post-crisis treatment to ensures people have peer support while recovering.
"We need to get on top of the mountains and shout it out," she said. "We have a mental health epidemic."
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