Increased calls, lack of resources and unanswered cries for help. Inside Clear Creek’s mental health crisis.

Andrew Fraieli
afraieli@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/12/22

In the midst of a pandemic that has caused a public health crisis the world over, a mental health crisis has worsened in parallel nationally and across Colorado — and Clear Creek county has been no exception.

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Increased calls, lack of resources and unanswered cries for help. Inside Clear Creek’s mental health crisis.

Posted

Darrin Patterson was shot by Clear Creek Sheriff’s deputies on May 9, 2020. He drove erratically, led officers on a car chase and eventually pulled out a handgun and pointed it at a deputy before being shot at 30 times — six of the shots landed, killing him.

This was not Patterson’s first interaction with law enforcement. He had called 911 multiple times before, expressing paranoid thoughts and delusions to the point that now Sgt. Richard Sonnenberg of the Idaho Springs Police Department threatened to “lock him up in the nut house” if Patterson kept calling, according to a grand jury report that was completed after the shooting, describing the incident and expressing multiple concerns over it. 

The report mentions ISPD’s "failure to take any affirmative steps to facilitate assistance to Darrin Patterson, a person obviously experiencing profound mental illness, which contributed to this unfortunate series of events" and continues that the jury was “troubled by the repeated responses” by ISPD prior to the incident. Patterson’s prior contacts with them, the report said, “demonstrated traits associated with psychiatric issues, including auditory hallucinations and acute paranoia.”

But, the report highlights, not only were no referrals to any mental health resources given, the county has “no identifiable mental health or counseling resources within the County which might enable for law enforcement to direct citizens to.”

No solutions were available to Darrin Patterson, who was known to law enforcement to have behavioral health challenges before his fatal encounter, according to Clear Creek County Commissioner George Marlin .

“I don’t know who didn’t tell who or what, I just know he didn't get the services he needed,” Marlin said.

In the midst of a pandemic that has caused a public health crisis the world over, a mental health crisis has worsened in parallel nationally and across Colorado — and Clear Creek county has been no exception.

For years before the pandemic, mental health had already been an ongoing issue in Clear Creek for youth, students and adults. Public knowledge on how to identify mental illness had been sparse, access to services limited and trust in those services weak. Some in Clear Creek see these issues stemming from stigma or limited funds, but no matter the barrier, everyone involved agreed: Clear Creek County is in a mental health crisis.

“I’m comfortable in saying, because of what Coloradans have reported, that we’re thinking that it’s the most significant health crisis to follow the pandemic,” said Kara Campbell, manager of Mountain Services at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.

What the problem looks like

Across the country, teen suicide rates increased by a quarter from 2018 to 2019, according to a report by the United Health Foundation. Colorado led the country in this increase, jumping by more than half from 2016 to 2019.

This is before the pandemic.

For Colorado students in 2021, 17% of 15- to 18-year-olds had considered suicide within the last year, 13% had made a plan and 7% had attempted suicide, according to The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey given to students every year.

For Clear Creek, the survey showed that about 40% of middle schoolers had ever seriously thought about suicide. A quarter said they had made a plan on how to do it, and about 15% tried. Among high schoolers, 18% said they seriously thought of killing themselves in the last 12 months, 15% made a plan and 8% had attempted one or more times.

“Our rates are high, even for the state average,” Mountain Youth Network Assistant Coordinator Rebecca Bernal said at a Clear Creek Board of Education meeting.

But these issues are not restricted to students and youth. 

According to the Colorado Center for Health and Environmental Data, between 2018 and 2019 there were 10 suicides in Clear Creek County. The previous six years had fewer than three suicides recorded each year. 

And, in a May 2021 Clear Creek County COVID-19 Community Impact Survey, more than half of the 955 respondents said their level of stress, anxiety and/or depression during the pandemic has been “extreme” or “moderate.” A fifth of people also indicated they had sought out mental health services during the pandemic for those issues, another 3% said they would like to, but cannot access it, and 4% said they would like to, but are uncomfortable pursuing mental health services.

The Jefferson Center for Mental Health, the biggest supplier of mental healthcare in the mountain area, also released a yearly ongoing report showing that in 2022 so far, 523 Clear Creek residents have used JCMH services. This is an 11% increase from last year, but, according to Campbell, “everything slowed down with COVID, even though mental health needs were increasing. I think fewer people were reaching out, because it was COVID, and I imagine it will be higher next year.”

In comparison to Clear Creek’s population of 9,500, Gilpin county — which had about 6,000 residents as of last year,  had 182 clients use JCMH’s services.

The pandemic

The pandemic is seen as exacerbating issues, causing much of the recent increase in need for services and the start of it being labeled a “crisis,” but the issues were already there.

“I think it’s gotten worse, just because the lockdown was really hard on people. They’re adjusting — still adjusting. However, I would say it’s gotten better in that because of COVID, people see the prevalence of mental health issues with sort of an assumption,” Aberg explained.

“With everyone struggling, there was an opening for people to say, ‘How are you? No really, how are you?’ ” She hopes that this could be a jumping board for people to look for services and lose a bit of the stigma associated with it, as COVID has “really opened up this idea that it’s OK to not be OK.” 

“But, the reality is that, pandemic aside, the kids are inundated with a lot more pressure than what we had growing up,” Mountain Youth Network Youth Programs Coordinator Ben Shay said. “Either through social media use, or online bullying, and unrealistic expectations, and then you have the pandemic on top of that.”

Normal teen anxieties are being compounded, he explained, but also many of the social-emotional lessons they learn at these ages happen between classes. 

“They sit down in class and learn some biology facts, or some math equations, but most of the learning that impacts the way they feel about themselves and their confidence is in the passing period, or lunch, or sports after school,” Shay said. “When the passing period is just ‘log out of this Google meet, and log into this Google meet,’ and you’ve been sitting in sweatpants all day, you're not having that environment of learning. And Snapchat is not going to offer that.”

But these professionals make pains to highlight that the problem was already there.

“All of the mental health concerns were present way before COVID,” said Brian Tracey, a case worker at Clear Creek Middle School and High School. He elaborated that, on a scale of severity for students, it fell in the middle pre-COVID. There were people to refer students to for help, beds available for students with severe issues, but nothing was so bad it was debilitating to the system. 

“Now, I think that degree has shifted more to the right. Present concerns were always there, but now that much more extreme,” he continued.

Anxiety, ADHD, panic attacks and suicide ideation are all issues for students that have worsened, with less resources to help, he said.

“Unfortunately, because the numbers are so high across Colorado, we’ve had several times that that has resulted in our kids having to be transported to Colorado Springs because that is just how full the entire system is, that they can’t find any beds whatsoever in the metro area,” said Debbie Corriero, another licensed caseworker out of MSHS, in a Board of Education meeting in May.

Even still, Tracey calls it only the “early stages of a mental health crisis.”

“I say ‘only’ because I think, as a society, we are only beginning to understand certain motivations, certain areas and changes in our society — both positive, negative and neutral — that are occurring,” he said. “And, there’s quite a lot more that we need to do.”

Stigma leads to silence

“Really Clear Creek is a very private community. They don’t talk a lot about mental health; (it's a) very mountain, ‘I can do this, I can do it myself,’ kind of community, which is awesome when it comes to a big snowstorm, but not when it comes to mental health,” said Heather Aberg, executive director of Resilience1220, a non-profit organization that offers free counseling to teens across the mountain area.

For those not in the school system, help is not a walk down the hall away. People need to go after that help, and along with that, have the motivation and channels to find it.

“It is a struggle. I would say the amount of people seeking help is nowhere near the amount of people that could actually benefit from help,” said Campbell. “People seek help when they’re ready to access it.”

Part of that disparity, she believes, is due to varying access to services in the recent past, and the trust in those services to seek them out at all.

Campbell, who started work at JCMH seven years ago, said she noticed from the beginning a “distrust in services,” but that the gap is starting to be bridged. She thinks part of that distrust comes from the availability of staff changing over time and pilot programs shuttering if not well-attended.

“I think, over the years, people see that we had a certain service, but then it’s not available now, and they think, ‘how can I trust if I participate in this, that it’ll be around when I need it later?’” she said.

But she emphasized that many services will stay, and she tries to be open when something is a pilot.

Shay elaborated that part of the mistrust may have compounded over the pandemic.

“I think the last couple years have really divided people in how much they trust a public health entity or local government entity, for whatever political reasons,” he said. “As a nonprofit, [Resilience1220] has been able to avoid that.”

Some of that mistrust can come from the fear of reprimand by law enforcement due to a crisis, too. Campbell made the point that being sick is not a crime, and they are working with police to make sure people aren’t arrested when it’s a mental health issue, not a criminal issue.

But, a main aspect of this disparity in the people who need services and those who actually seek it comes from negative impressions associated with mental illness.

“If you could line up a bunch of therapists, and you could line up a bunch of funding, and you had the proper resources, the next challenge is forcing that community adoption,” elaborated Shay.

Marlin wants the county to lower the stigma so people will feel comfortable reaching out for help. “Some people aren't ready to help themselves, but we want to have a ladder there for them to grab when they are ready,” he said.

Part of the issue is funding to educate people enough to remove the negative association, continued Shay. People need to think of it as a mental health workout, just like going for a run or lifting weights.

“You don’t go lift weights once and say, ‘Cool I’m good for the rest of my life,’” he said. “They’re not that far off.” 

But the lack of funding to educate people more similarly affects making services easier to access.

The funding

Marlin believes not only that there aren’t enough mental health services statewide, but the existing systems are underinvested, and Clear Creek is no exception. 

Using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the county hired the OMNI Institute, a nonprofit social science consultancy, to do a behavioral health study in 2020 to clarify what immediate actions should be taken.

One key recommendation was creating a county position to help people navigate services, and coordinate a plan for better integrating systems and services. That better integration between agencies like law enforcement and emergency services was another key recommendation.

“These services were built too separately,” Marlin said.

This was similar to the grand jury report in the Patterson case, which suggested the county better identify resources that can “immediately be made available” to officers to assist people in crisis.

Another source of funding that Marlin hopes to use to fulfill some of those recommendations is from the American Rescue Plan.

“My hope is that a short-term investment using American Rescue Plan Funds that run out after 3 years will give us some runway to find sustainability funding for an enhancement of the system,” he explained. “But I think it’s not a terrible outcome if we take an emergency response approach to what is, in my mind, an emergency related to behavioral health.”

With that in mind, he continued: “It’s hard to say responsibly that I know we’re going to invest a lot in the long-run in behavioral health, but I certainly want us to look for areas to improve. Especially in areas where the state wants to help finance those improvements.”

A parallel problem that both Shay and Aberg pointed out, though, is a dwindling supply of therapists to hire, which creates more than the obvious problems.

“We have a shortage. We don’t have the number of therapists, and we also don’t necessarily have the funding or the resources even if we had a million therapists,” Shay said. 

“Come fall, I’m worried we won’t have enough therapists, and we’ll have to start a waitlist as well, which sucks, especially for teens,” Aberg said. “For teens, and in general, when you’re ready to start therapy, you might change your mind next week, or even tomorrow. So we really try to respond quickly, but once there’s a waitlist, that mood might pass, and they decide they don’t want to do counseling.”

School is where many adolescents receive some form of mental health services, and they are not immune to funding issues either. 

According to Tracey, the school district received federal funding as the crisis became clearer, which helped to keep up with mental health needs, but the funding had stopped before the crisis.

“They thought we were back to normal,” he said. “Are you kidding me? We’re nowhere close. There was a massive disconnect.”

The solutions

One direct solution being implemented in the school system is what Tracey calls Clear Creek Connect.

It will be a daily meeting in school meant to create channels of communication between students and teachers, helping students talk on a wide variety of topics that occur naturally in school, he explained. 

It may help assuage worries and stresses about an upcoming test, or be the connection that allows a teacher to help a student navigate mental health services.

“As Brian Tracey — not as Brian Tracey an employee of Clear Creek — I feel like education needs to adapt and change, and we are making strides to do so," he said. "We can’t go back to the old system. I don’t think any school should.”

Being preventative rather than reactionary is a method of solution that Mountain Youth Network mainly deals with, according to Shay. For youth in general, Shay believes a part of that prevention is building community.

“We’re building a lot more of a community around young people, through either partners or stakeholders who are creating opportunities for youth to engage, and through that engagement (the youth) find that sense of community, sense of purpose. They find that connection they’re striving for,” said Shay.

“I think that goes across for all young people in the community,” he continued. “If adults understood them a little bit more, and knew how to interact with them, they would feel more supported, and I don’t think that’s the sole solution for the mental health crisis, but it’s one of the boxes.”

This preventative care is a thread throughout almost all solutions by these experts. To Campbell, “no problem is too small. It’s great to come in and get preventative care as well, and not wait until the last moment when your life is really being affected.”

Other more concrete solutions have materialized, too.

JCMH has a crisis center and walk-in clinic that’s staffed 24/7, but a local crisis clinician, Carrie Lindberg, is at the Health and Wellness Center in Clear Creek 20 hours a week now, Campbell said.

Those who call the crisis center will connect with someone to talk through if it’s a good idea to come in, whether it’s better to talk over the phone or schedule a meeting for next day and work on a safety plan in the meantime.

Some solutions have been here the whole time, like telehealth. Aberg stressed it could solve many issues of transport and access.

“Someone from Clear Creek can find therapy online from someone else in Colorado,” she said, specifically mentioning psychologytoday.com as a resource to find therapists.

People also can always call or text the suicide hotline — 1-844-493-8255 for JCMH. It’s for people having a mental health crisis, too, she said, and people can call even if it’s just about someone they are worried about.

Colorado also recently announced 988 as a mental health crisis emergency line as well.

“If someone is willing to ask for community help, I think we have the nuts and bolts available to provide that across the many different agencies that we have in Clear Creek,” Campbell said.

Transport to services if needed, access to telehealth and convincing everyone that “we all need help at some point in our lives,” as Campbell put it, are still challenges to be resolved — let alone the funding to make it all work. But there are services and people available now.

Resilience1220 offers 10 free sessions of therapy to anyone 12 to 20 years old. Telehealth can allow people to choose any therapist across the state that they think would be a good fit for them, without them having to go anywhere.

“I think there’s hope, but I think it’s going to take time,” Aberg said. 

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