Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue speaks on a panel about the state of Colorado’s mental health safety net

Pogue has been at the forefront of advocating for better mental health resources and easier access to services

Assistant Summit County Manager Sarah Vaine and Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue sit in the Summit County Courthouse on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Pogue and Vaine are advocates for mental health and are both working with other county staff members to increase access to acute care in the county.
Photo by John Hanson/For the Summit Daily News

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Russell Goodman’s name.

Coloradan Russell Goodman knew his daughter wasn’t doing well. It was 2017 and there wasn’t any snow on the ground. While Goodman doesn’t remember the exact date, he does remember the night he spent hours helping his 16-year-old daughter. He tried, desperately, to keep her alive but he knew she needed more help than he could give.

She was in a mental health crisis.

In Steamboat Springs, however, where he and his daughter lived at the time, there were and still are limited mental health resources. So they were forced to go to the ICU.

A crisis interventionist visited and spoke to them while his daughter sat in her ICU hospital bed. Goodman reported the crisis interventionist was very empathetic.

“I’d like to think we made some progress that night,” Goodman said. “We cried, we hugged, we somehow survived that evening.”

Goodman had work the next morning, and decided to get a coffee before heading into a full day of work.

“The woman who handed me the coffee through the window was the crisis interventionist from the night before,” he said.

The state’s behavioral health system has been under scrutiny for the last few years, as has one of its community mental health centers, Mind Springs Health. Over the last week, numerous findings have been published regarding how Mind Springs has struggled to provide the services its contracted to do so.

Therefore, tensions were high when six people whose careers — and for Goodman, whose family’s livelihood — rely on mental health resources sat down on Tuesday, May 17 for a panel discussion over where Colorado’s behavioral health system has gone wrong.

The panel was hosted by Colorado News Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of more than 170 newsrooms across Colorado. It was moderated by Susan Green, a Pulitzer-nominated independent journalist who recently wrote an article on the Mind Springs investigation.

Among Russell Goodman, some of the other panelists included Dr. Carl Clark, President and CEO of Mental Health Center of Denver and Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue.

As the panel started, Green asked Pogue, “What do you need?”

In response, Pogue focused on two things. The first was recognition of how bad conditions have been for folks in Summit County that are in desperate need of mental health resources. The second was choice. She said community members should have a “choice of providers that are held accountable, that answer their phone, that make appointments, that are there when people are in crisis, so people don’t have to go to law enforcement for treatment.”

Goodman’s story seemed to strike a chord with the county commissioner.

“I think Russell’s story is also the story of so many people in Summit County,” Pogue said. “It’s one of the reasons that I have such a passion for fixing this system.”

Pogue went on to say that Goodman’s story not only represents the community members in Summit County who are struggling to receive care, but it also highlights the issue of funding like paying a crisis interventionist enough so they don’t have to get a second job at a coffee shop.

Pogue said the county wants to enact change by reallocating funds, but no one can figure out how much money there is or where its being spent. According to Pogue, the county has repeatedly asked how much money follows Summit County has for behavioral health system, and the only answer they have received is, “it’s very complicated.”

If there are programs the county would like to create to supplement gaps in care that behavioral health hospitals like Mind Springs aren’t able to provide, the money has to come from county dollars. This funding comes from a mill levy, from the state, sometimes from the county’s general fund.

However, if there were enough money from the state to completely fund behavioral health resources, the county’s money would be able to go to other things like Roads, water, sewer and open space.

“That money could be used six or seven times over on a number of different things,” Pogue said.

And yet, behavioral health employees are forced to get two jobs to support themselves. Dr. Clark, the president and CEO of Mental Health Center of Denver, mentioned at the panel that there are 93 full-time behavioral health positions open at his facility.

When Goodman saw that crisis interventionist on the other side of that coffee shop drive through window, he said he just wanted to cry.

“I had all these emotions that I had just kind of stuffed back down and put away so that I could begin my day and in seeing her, I felt an instant sense of camaraderie, that I wasn’t alone in the world,” Goodman said.

But Goodman said also he felt bewildered. And yet, he understood.

“After attending college, going to grad school and accumulating student loans, you take a $32,000 a year job, trying to do the right thing, and you can’t survive. … Not in this climate,” he said of the training mental health professionals typically receive.

Pogue insists it’s about priorities.

“It does seem to me there could be some reallocation of resources that would help people choose behavioral health as a profession, or help people stay in the profession, or help people not have to have two jobs,” Pogue said.

Next week, Pogue will be meeting with Dr. Morgan Medlock, the state’s new Behavioral Health Commissioner, to have further the discussion about funds, reform and priorities. The county is also collecting community responses through a survey to get local input on mental health needs.

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