Kristin Jones
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

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May 13, 2014
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Coloradans with mental illnesses and their families say help is hard to find

Danielle Nordeen had to drive 300 miles across Colorado to visit her 7-year-old son in a psychiatric ward after he lashed out at school and later threatened to kill himself and others.

Across the state, the same story plays out. A shortage of treatment options for people with mental illnesses means waiting months to see a psychiatrist, or driving hundreds of miles for a psychiatric bed. Police and emergency rooms bear the brunt of a splintered system that juggles crises but falls short on treatment.

In Weld County, North Range Behavioral Health offers walk-in crisis counseling for kids and adults during weekdays. North Range also operates a 16-bed Acute Treatment Unit for people ages 18 and over that is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The unit offers crisis-counseling services, medication services and can work with a patient to plan for outpatient support services after their discharge.

“It’s a place where people can go and be stabilized and get medication,” said Larry Pottorff, executive director at North Range Behavioral Health.

However, kids under 18 needing emergency psychiatric support have to be referred to clinics outside the county, like Mountain Crest Behavioral Healthcare Center in Fort Collins.

“Our approach is to try to work with families before they reach the need for hospitalization,” Pottorff said. “Early intervention is big. That’s really our focus. The earlier you can catch it, the easier it is to treat it.”

Medical professionals and advocates cite a combination of barriers: Adults have the right to refuse intervention. Parents are often reluctant to call 911, when it can mean that their children are cuffed by police. Schools, employers and hospitals are too quick to say it’s not their problem. Acquaintances and friends feel ill-equipped to act.

“One of biggest challenges we face in the profession is getting the person to seek treatment,” Pottorff said.

For some people who live with mental illnesses and their families, efforts to make intervention easier can miss the point. They want help, they say. What they need is more support for treatment and recovery in the communities where they live.

Pottorff said a big mission at North Range is to normalize the whole concept of mental illness.

“Mental health is health, and it’s not anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about,” he said. “If they have a need, give us a call. That’s why we’re here.”

No shelter

The number of people placed into involuntary mental-health treatment has jumped in recent years. Court filings show a 35 percent jump in 72-hour holds, short- and long-term certifications, and other court-ordered treatment between fiscal years 2009 and 2013. Mental health providers reported 31,317 emergency mental-health holds in fiscal year 2013, according to state officials, a 21 percent increase from just a year earlier.

But the growing demand for beds hasn’t been met by an increase in availability. Instead, the options for low-income Coloradans in particular have shrunk as beds at the two state psychiatric hospitals have closed. The state mental health institutes at Fort Logan and Pueblo have 553 beds in 2014, down from 734 in 2000.

In 2012, North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley closed its 22-bed psychiatric unit.

But at North Range’s 16-bed crisis unit, beds are usually available unless there is an uneven ratio of men and women, Pottorff said.

Staff writer Casey Kelly contributed to this report.

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My Windsor Now Updated Oct 6, 2014 05:39PM Published May 15, 2014 10:12AM Copyright 2014 My Windsor Now. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.