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Coloradans Are Bracing for a Mental Health Crisis After COVID-19

The number of Coloradans who need mental health treatment is rising. Can the Colorado government get its act together in order to serve them all?

Brittany Kochar, 31, weathered the first six to eight months of the pandemic fairly well. But as time dragged on, the Littleton resident, who in 2019 was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after her sister was murdered, began to feel the isolation eroding her mental health. Toward the end of 2020, Kochar’s anxiety, frustration, and PTSD increased—and they’ve only intensified in the new year. “Recently, I felt a lot like this isn’t really living, this is just surviving,” Kochar says. “And it’s exhausting.”

The torrent of stressful events we’ve endured during the past year—the pandemic, but also a contentious election, the reckoning over systemic racism, and devastating wildfires—is so unprecedented that experts struggle to say how, exactly, this tumultuous period may impact our mental health over the long term. But early indicators are not good. Since COVID-19 shuttered the state in March 2020, the average number of calls per month to the Colorado Crisis Services hotline has increased by about 32 percent.

Unfortunately, many struggle to access care, and finding treatment is likely to become more difficult. Pre-COVID-19, 56 percent of Coloradans who needed mental health support were not getting it, says Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, a Denver-based advocacy group. Then, stigma and the effort it took to find a qualified provider were some of the biggest challenges. Now, the system of care is “strained because the need is greater than ever,” Atchity says.

Further complicating the issue is the state’s fragmented behavioral health bureaucracy. A Colorado Department of Human Services (DHS) task force reported that funding is spread across at least 10 different departments and over 75 programs; some counties receive substance-use prevention money from as many as four agencies, and others don’t get any additional dollars. “There’s inconsistency across the state in efforts,” says Robert Werthwein, director of Colorado’s Office of Behavioral Health (OBH). As a result, certain Coloradans—including people of color, immigrants, rural residents, children, people with disabilities, veterans, and those in the criminal justice system—are more likely to have difficulty obtaining quality care, according to a recent OBH assessment.

To make matters worse, OBH’s Community Behavioral Health division budget was slashed by nearly 10 percent of what was expected in 2020-’21 because of the pandemic’s effect on the economy. Although the cuts were largely offset by funding from the federal CARES Act and other federal grants, the division lost new, anticipated money when bills under consideration in the 2020 state legislative session were amended to remove funding.

Still, there is hope: The state released a blueprint last September for reforming its behavioral health system, and the efforts—which include creating a centralized administration, initially under DHS, and building a robust system to better serve uninsured Coloradans and others unable to afford care—are already underway. The state’s rough goal over the next six to 18 months is to complete portions of the first phase in its three-part reform, which includes expanding tele-behavioral health services, pinpointing new funding sources, and establishing Colorado’s centralized command.

In the meantime, residents like Kochar continue to cope with the emotional toll of this era the best they can. There are moments when Kochar feels so overwhelmed that she just wants to sleep all day, but she forges ahead by thinking about small things that excite her, like gardening season. Like many, Kochar hopes she will feel better come spring.

If you or someone you know needs help, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.

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