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Advancing Colorado’s Mental Health Care

In 2011, researchers at TriWest Group developed a follow-up report, The Status of Behavioral Health Care in Colorado. This comprehensive assessment details the strengths and weaknesses of Colorado’s mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) care systems. TriWest interviewed 89 key informants actively involved in mental health and SUD treatment delivery and policy development; expanded the 2003 data to include information on SUD services and current data on mental health care across state agencies; examined the overall findings and lessons learned from the six ACMHC grantee projects; and completed an extensive literature review of key issues identified through ACMHC’s work. A few of the key findings of The Status of Behavioral Health Care in Colorado include:

  • There are too few providers with specialized skills willing to serve Coloradans with the most complex behavioral health needs, given current reimbursement rates and gaps in specialized training. As a result, these individuals are accessing services through multiple systems, too often receiving ineffective, uncoordinated care, and driving up costs.
  • There is a critical shortage of providers in rural and frontier areas of the state. Eighty-two percent of practicing psychiatrists, 86 percent of child psychiatrists and essentially all psychiatrists specializing in SUD treatment are located in the Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas.
  • Specific populations continue to struggle to access mental health/SUD care. LGTBQIA+ people have a two to three times higher risk of suicide than the general population. Veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with elevated rates of trauma-related disorders and depression, or untreated traumatic brain injuries. In addition, when they do receive care, Coloradans of color are disproportionately served in correctional settings.
  • Colorado is a national leader in promoting integrated behavioral health care, and 50 percent of mental health/SUD care is now delivered in primary care settings.

The report offers a number of recommendations for those striving to improve behavioral health care in Colorado:

  • Continue to promote consolidation and coordination efforts among state and county agencies. These efforts are key to aligning benefits and maximizing access to federal funds, reducing overall costs, and minimizing the adverse impacts of unmet behavioral health care needs. Target provider workforce-expansion efforts to two areas: access in communities outside the metro Denver and Colorado Springs areas, and in specialized areas of need, including providers with advanced training, specialists to care for older adults and children, and culturally competent providers.
  • As available funds allow, increase overall investment in mental health service delivery, and substantially more (on a percentage basis) in SUD treatment and prevention services.
  • Expand availability and access to person-centered medical homes that integrate behavioral health and primary care.

Learn about the health equity issues affecting Coloradans at Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.