Garfield County leaders spotlight mental health needs |

Garfield County leaders spotlight mental health needs

Ryan Summerlin
Kathy Whitman, a licensed clinical social worker at Valley View Hospital, makes a point at last week's Common Ground discussion of mental health issues. Other panelists, from left, included Dr. Kevin Coleman, chief medical officer at Grand River Health; Bruce Christensen, executive director of Mountain Valley Development Services; Jackie Skramstad, regional director at Mind Springs Health; and Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario.

Garfield County leaders, discussing mental health needs at a forum last week, emphasized the need for preventative efforts, a sustainable detox center and more psychiatric beds.

The issue touches more than a small piece of the population, Jackie Skramstad, Mind Springs Health regional director said at the Post Independent’s second Common Ground discussion of 2017. One in four people at some point have a diagnosable mental health condition, she said.

In the Colorado criminal justice system, about $93 million is spent on mental health treatment per year. Patrol officers are often dealing with individuals needing mental health treatment who are also tied up in a crime. Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said that, unfortunately, when a crime has been committed, responding to that crime trumps the individual’s mental health needs. So one of Vallario’s big concerns lies with the county’s preventative efforts to get people help before law enforcement gets involved.

District Attorney Jeff Cheney estimated that 55-65 percent of the cases his office sees have “a thread of mental health as an issue.”

What happens with health care at the national level is going to play a big part, as the expansion of Medicaid has also meant more money for mental health services. Skramstad said that about 40 percent of Medicaid dollars go to mental health treatment.

Medical professionals from Valley View Hospital and Grand River Health said they deal with numerous instances of violence outbursts from patients in need of psychiatric services.

The lack of a detox center sends severely intoxicated people to emergency rooms because there’s nowhere else to go, and likewise the shortage of psychiatric beds in the region is often leaving people in need without help, panelists said.

Getting a bed for someone in need of detox or psychiatric services is a big challenge, said Kathy Whitman, a licensed clinical social worker at Valley View.

“I think everyone’s been trying to do what they can to deal with the shortage” of psychiatric hospital beds, said Skramstad.

Still the region’s services have improved dramatically with Grand Junction’s West Springs Hospital, the only psychiatric hospital on the Western Slope, said Bruce Christensen, executive director of Mountain Valley Developmental Services. These patients have more options than in the past, but it’s still not enough, he said. Like everything else in western Colorado, he said, everything is far away.

Local leaders at the forum had plenty of local progress to point to.

Skramstad said the region has developed a network with multiple “intercept” opportunities for programs and services to contact a person in need of mental health care. The criminal justice system offers pretrial services, probation, specialty courts and substance abuse services in the jail, all of which provide different points along the way to catch people in the net to help them with their mental health issues, she said.

Mind Springs is also in the middle of a campaign to double the size of its Grand Junction psychiatric hospital to 64 beds. When the hospital becomes full, which Skramstad says it often does, patients have to travel as far as Denver, Colorado Springs or Pueblo.

Some attendees suggested forming community groups that could influence adolescents, giving them some support and structure when it could do the most good — getting to the root rather than dealing with only the symptoms of the problem, as one man put it.

“Many kids today are just not being raised; they’re raising themselves,” said Cheney.

Vallario added that Communities That Care, a nationwide program addressing substance abuse and mental health in youth, is just getting a foothold locally. Coincidentally, the group had its first meeting Wednesday morning in Carbondale concerning launching the program here, said the sheriff. He added that other programs like YouthZone are “wonderful resources” that serve young people dealing with substance abuse and behavioral issues.

“It’s absolutely a cycle, and early intervention is key,” said Dr. Kevin Coleman, chief medical officer at Grand River Health. He added that there are some good opportunities to use grant money to get mental health professionals in the school districts.

There’s no doubt, if you can get to those kids early, you can teach them those positive behaviors, said Vallario.

Cheney also stressed the need for a detox center and finding a creative way to pay for it.

Christensen said it’s important to look at the detox centers Glenwood Springs has had in the past, and the reasons (usually financial) they didn’t work. Now the population and demand are bigger, and state funding is smaller, he said.

For years mental health issues have been pushed aside as “the black sheep of the family,” said Vallario. Only recently has an interest in the problem surged, and the Legislature has responded with bills, such as to increase mental health crisis funding and to fund law enforcement to staff mental health professionals to assist patrol officers with contacts in the field.

The sheriff said he is “glad to see the Legislature finally recognizing the importance of crisis management and mental health issues in our state.”

“The problem exists, and it’s not going away,” said Vallario. The question is whether the community wants to use its limited tax dollars to address it or wait until that person is in the criminal justice system, costing five times as much as another inmate, he said.

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