Mental health crisis lingers from pandemic

Pot is boiling over as lawmakers, health officials react to growing number of cases

Thelma Grimes
tgrimes@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/28/21

Before the 2020 pandemic, Kelly Blike described the behavioral health situation for both adolescents and adults in Colorado as a boiling pot of water, filled to the rim. Now, that pot is spilling …

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Mental health crisis lingers from pandemic

Pot is boiling over as lawmakers, health officials react to growing number of cases

Posted

Before the 2020 pandemic, Kelly Blike described the behavioral health situation for both adolescents and adults in Colorado as a boiling pot of water, filled to the rim. Now, that pot is spilling over with no containment in site.

“There has always been a mental health crisis in Colorado, COVID just echoed it,” said Blike, a social worker at the UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital. “The isolation and lack of physical contact has exaggerated a problem that was already in place. We cannot ignore the problem. We have a long way to go.”

As businesses and life appear to be returning to normal from the pandemic, Blike said hospitals are still dealing with the residual effects.

Dr. Ben Usatch, director of emergency medicine at the Highlands Ranch hospital, said the 21-bed emergency room has a handful of patients needing mental health care on any given day. The numbers are not decreasing, and he does not think they will any time soon.

“There is a post-COVID syndrome that we are going to be cleaning up for a long time,” he said.

In June, Children’s Hospital Colorado (CHC) declared a crisis. The statewide organization reported an increase in young patients attempting suicide and presenting to local emergency rooms with issues related to substance abuse and eating disorders.

CHC has facilities around the Denver metro area in Highlands Ranch, Broomfield, Centennial, Parker, Wheat Ridge, Denver and Aurora.

Dr. Jenna Glover, director of psychology training at CHC, said in past years, there was a decrease in suicide attempts and emergency room visits for behavioral health in the summer months. That is not the case this year.

“We’re anticipating a spike in these visits as kids return to a ‘normal’ school year where they may be confronting challenges with setbacks in their education and in-person interactions,” she said.

Usatch said he has never seen so many adolescent patients being admitted to the hospital because substance abuse with drugs and alcohol has become debilitating.

Blike said during the pandemic parents were struggling to cope with restrictions, changes and finances. It is no surprise that children and teens were just as heavily impacted, she said.

In June, CHC called on the state Legislature to step up and start helping them deal with the growing crisis. Since the call for help, Sarah Davis, a media relations coordinator for CHC, said lawmakers did take a step forward in the 2021 legislative session.

Heidi Baskfield, CHC vice president of population health and advocacy, said passing Senate Bill 137, the Behavioral Health Recovery Act, is a step in the right direction. The new law provides short-term investment in critical priority areas like community-based youth crisis services, additional residential beds, and more resources for school-based health centers.

Another step in the right direction, Baskfield said is House Bill 1258. The bill, Rapid Mental Health Response for Colorado Youth, establishes a temporary program to facilitate youth mental health services in response to identified needs.

On June 18, Gov. Jared Polis signed HB 1258 into law during a special ceremony that included bipartisan support from Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, and Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, and Sens. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, and Rob Woodward, R-Loveland.

As the bill was signed by Polis, Van Winkle said HB 1258 is one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in the 2021 session.

Michaelson Jenet sponsored both HB 1258 and SB 137. The Adams County representative said when she ran for office her primary platform was youth mental health. After the 2021 session, Michaelson Jenet said she is happy the two bills passed because they are not just Band-Aids on a growing problem. They are real steps forward to help a lot of people, she said.

“For years I have been banging the drum that we are in a suicide pandemic,” Michaelson Jenet said. “(HB 1258) opens up access for kids who are not getting the support they need right now. This will help all demographics and ages.”

Baskfield said the rapid response program will provide youths easy access to screening and treatment through an app-based screening tool. The $9 million bill will create the Temporary Youth Mental Health Services Program, reimbursing providers for three mental health sessions for young patients.

To put in perspective what HB 1258 can do for Colorado’s youths, Michaelson Jenet noted that text in the bill says it will help 26,000 young people. However, she believes it will help reach thousands more, as the tools are available for free.

Michaelson Jenet said the bills passed in 2021 are just a steppingstone — the state has a long road to recovery in addressing mental health issues for both adults and adolescents.

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