A mental health screening program that has been piloted at the Planned Parenthood Littleton Health Center this past year is set to be expanded to locations across Colorado after the health provider said it found success in identifying patients with depression.
The organization partnered with Colorado Access, a nonprofit that contracts with the state government to provide health care plans through Medicaid, to screen thousands of patients for mental health concerns, something that can oftentimes be overlooked in patients seeking primary care.
“There's some stigma around mental health,” said Rob Bremer, vice president of network strategy for Colorado Access. “But if your provider is asking about it, it begins to normalize that conversation.”
While it is not uncommon for healthcare providers to ask questions about a patient's mental health, it's less likely that providers will do so in a routine fashion, Bremer said. He likened the program, which he called a behavioral health screening, to the standard practices of a doctor's appointment.
“You would be concerned if you went into a primary care provider and they didn't take your blood pressure,” Bremer said, adding that it should be the same when it comes to checking a patient's mental health.
Care providers at the Littleton Planned Parenthood were trained by Colorado Access to ask a set of questions, known as Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ), to all patients who walked through their door to identify if they were at risk for, or currently had, depression.
They found that of 2,150 patients screened between May 17 and Oct. 20, 160 showed symptoms of depression. Of those 160, a follow-up questionnaire, known as the PHQ-9, was given to identify patients who may have depressive disorder so that they could be connected with a therapist through the Colorado Access and Planned Parenthood networks.
It was a first-of-its kind program for Planned Parenthood locations in Colorado, according to the organization's chief experience officer, Adrienne Mansanares. Before working with Colorado Access, Mansanares said staff did not have the training or resources to identify the mental health needs of patients.
“For a healthcare provider whose sole career is based in helping people, it's such a feeling of powerlessness to have someone who is clearly struggling and not have the resources to help them,” she said.
The pilot program provides a roadmap to a more comprehensive and uniform approach to addressing mental health especially for those who may not know they need help.
“Nobody is going to fall through the cracks,” Mansanares said.
The practice comes at a crucial time for mental health awareness, with 23% of Coloradans meeting the criteria for major depressive disorder following the onset of COVID-19, according to an April 2020 survey from the Colorado School of Public Health.
“The anxiety that we're living with, a heightened level of stress and anxiety, we've seen the need and demand for behavioral health services just increase and increase,” Bremer said.
Following the success in Littleton, the screening has been expanded to Planned Parenthood's Aurora, Denver Central, Park Hill, Arvada, Fort Collins and Boulder health centers. It plans to bring the service to all 17 of its locations by the end of the year.
Bremer said it brings hope for better mental health care across Colorado.
“We're going to be recognizing depression earlier and it's going to be easier to treat,” he said.
And the practice will reach Planned Parenthood patients outside of Colorado, said Mansanares, with plans to bring the service to locations in New Mexico and Nevada. For her, it's about making mental health a priority.
“I'm hoping it saves lives,” she said.
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