Larimer County Mental Health Initiative

By Amber McIver-Traywick

The Surveyor

A ballot measure that will fund a mental and behavioral health facility in Larimer County will be in the hands of voters this November. County officials and stakeholders in communities around Larimer County have been working toward researching the issue and educating the public about major gaps within mental health care in an attempt to avoid the initiative failing as a similar one did in 2016. If approved, the facility, estimated to cost $29 million, will not be in operation until 2021, but joint community services in partnership with the facility will begin to receive funding within a few months.  

Beginning in 2013, over 300 community members in Larimer County came together to identify gaps within the realm of mental-health services in the area. The initial findings lead the Larimer County Board of Commissioners to resolve to address the challenges facing this issue which resulted in the Larimer County Master Plan for Behavioral Health, a strategic plan based on community outreach and extensive research to impact behavioral health in the county, with the plan including a tax increase over a 20-year period.

According to the master plan, statistically in Larimer County, one out of every five people suffers from a mental-health issue. One of the catalysts of this plan was the fact the suicide rate in the county has doubled since 2009, which places the area among the highest suicide rates in the nation. According to the Larimer County Coroner’s annual report in 2016 alone, 83 people took their own lives in the county. The ages of those who committed suicide in 2017 ranged from 17 to 95.

The area is also rapidly growing in population, further stretching the demand on current mental-health resources. According to the US Census Bureau’s latest estimate, in July 2017 Larimer County’s population was 343,976, a 14 percent increase from the 2010 population of 299,628.

Laurie Stolen, the Behavioral Health Project director at the Behavioral Health Initiative in a recent interview said informing residents about the plans and the need for the mental-health facility, while ultimately integrating services across the county, including towns like Berthoud, not just the larger cities, has been a large part of her focus. Stolen said despite the best efforts of many organizations, the initiative discovered many gaps in mental-health services across Larimer County. “Everyone is impacted by the very real needs of mental health and the substance-abuse crisis going on in our community and, one way or another, we’re all paying for it now. The unfortunate thing is that currently, we are getting terrible outcomes.”

The facility is intended to be a centralized location or “hub” where crisis and coordinated care can be effectively and efficiently managed for all the residents of Larimer County.

The research conducted by the initiative showed that for many people living in Berthoud and elsewhere in the area, having access to basic mental-health-care services or finding any continuity of care is extremely difficult. The report, which compiled data collected over multiple years and from a variety of sources, also shows certain types and levels of care are not available at all, there are few payment options, including high out-of-pocket costs, or insurance coverage is not available, and there are long wait times for services that are available.

In July 2018 the Larimer County Board of Commissioners voted to include the resolution to the November ballot which will propose a .25 percent sales and use tax over a 20-year period. This would mean if you made a purchase for $100 it would be an additional $.25 on your total.

The toll on resources isn’t just relegated to financial ones, “350-400 people a month go to the emergency rooms in Larimer County that have mental-health and/or addiction issues and they sit there waiting for a more appropriate bed and most of the time in that six to eight hours they are medically cleared, but then within 24 hours they’re right back in the emergency room again,” Stolen said, commenting on the cycle many residents with these issues find themselves in without appropriate follow-up care.

In the executive summary of the initiative’s findings it states in 2016, 26,000 residents did not get the behavioral health treatment they needed for issues like depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and substance addictions, and a wide variety of other issues.  

Hospitals aren’t the only entities feeling the strain of the growing population. Law enforcement is also experiencing the influx of mental-health needs. Sgt. Jim Anderson of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office Berthoud Squad said on average they respond to three to four calls a week related to mental health, many of which he said are threats of suicide. “If someone is suicidal they don’t need the hospital, they don’t need law enforcement, but we’re the ones who get called, so by having a facility that’s specific for a mental-health situation would be so beneficial for the police… It’s also going to benefit the person we’re bringing over there, because they’re actually getting the resource that they need,” Anderson said.

Another concern for law enforcement could see eased by the facility is the fact Northern Colorado has only one detox center, which is located north of Greeley in Weld County, which takes up a considerable amount of time for officers to access. Stolen also expressed concerns on this topic by saying many individuals with mental health and addiction issues cycle in and out of the criminal justice system, and if appropriate treatment were made available the cycle could be ended. “When you build individual’s resilience then you build community resilience, and that is powerful,” she said. 

In addition to simply meeting individual mental-health needs, the behavioral health plan states other communities who have similar joint efforts like the one being proposed through the initiative see a dramatic reduction in criminal justice, emergency room, and ambulance services.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, less than half of adults with a mental illness receive treatment in a given year. One of the most telling statistics about the benefit of seeking help with mental-health concerns is the fact that 70-90 percent of people with mental illness saw an improvement in their symptoms and quality of life after participating in a treatment program like the options that would be available through the facility. This is according to research conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, that also has stated depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. 

Larimer County currently owns 40 acres of land south of the Larimer County Landfill, located off of S. Taft Hill Road near Horsetooth Reservoir where the building will be constructed should the initiative be approved by voters.  

Stolen stressed the point that the facility would be available for all Larimer County residents regardless of where they reside in Larimer County, their age, background or if they are veterans. When asked about what the impact Larimer County could see if the initiative is approved Stolen said, “The result I would like to see is a true generational impact on people that struggle with mental illness and addiction issues. I would like to save lives. I think this project has the real potential to facilitate more people entering recovery and maintaining their recovery because it will have the care coordination and that long-term support that people need.”

To read the complete plan or for more information on the Mental Health Initiative visit larimercountymentalhealth.info. 

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