By Kristin Jones
How far would you go to get life-saving treatment for yourself or a family member? Five miles? Fifty miles? A thousand?
For Coloradans needing detox from heroin, treatment for depression or schizophrenia, these aren’t hypothetical questions. It’s common to have to travel hundreds of miles across the state to find a bed in a psychiatric hospital, or a place to detox outside of jail.
At a time when overdose deaths are surging, this long-standing problem has gained new urgency.
In Colorado’s rural counties, according to Denver-based nonprofit Healthier Colorado, there is one behavioral health care provider for every 6,008 residents. Fewer than one in five of the state’s psychiatrists live outside of Denver or Colorado Springs.
Even in the places where some treatment is available—places that draw people living in underserved areas to their facilities—capacity often falls far short.
“We have 30 detox beds in Pueblo,” says Matt Guy, who directs Pueblo Triple Aim Corporation, a nonprofit (and Trust grantee) that works to improve the quality and affordability of health care in the county. It can take 30 days for a heroin addict to detox, not to mention the additional months required to get a foothold on real recovery.
"Doubling that [to 60 beds] would be a good start," says Guy. A hundred beds, he adds, is a more realistic assessment of what it would take to meet the need—not only of people within Pueblo, but of those who travel here from neighboring counties.
On Aug. 17, Iriana Reyes-Corral, Crystal Murillo and Angelina Sierra-Sandoval started out on a 50-mile walk from Cañon City to Pueblo as part of an initiative by Healthier Colorado to raise awareness of the long distances that rural Coloradans have to travel to get help with mental and behavioral health. (Full disclosure: There's no easy way to make this trip on foot, and they drove parts where the highway shoulder got too narrow to walk safely.)
"I see a therapist on the regular in Denver," said Sierra-Sandoval, an advocacy fellow at Healthier Colorado. "But what about a 24-year-old grad student living in rural Colorado?"
Everyone—young or old, rural or urban—needs a little help from time to time.