Colorado mental health data moves in wrong direction despite some promising trends
By Jack Queen
More High Country residents are saying they experience at least one week of poor mental health days per month than two years ago, and the percentage who say they needed mental health care but didn’t get it increased as well, according to state survey data.
Despite promising trends in Summit County mental health care, including a suicide rate near a 10-year low, those figures and a host of behavioral-health-risk-factor data show there is plenty of work left to be done.
“The fact that suicides are down doesn’t necessarily mean people are experiencing more mental wellness,” said Sarah Vaine, assistant county manager and former Summit Community Care Clinic CEO.
In the mountain region, which includes Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties, the percentage of residents who reported eight or more days of poor mental health in the past month increased to 11 percent this year from 5 percent in 2015. The region also has the highest rates of binge drinking in the state, which likely exacerbates acute mental illness.
“One issue we have here with such a transient community is that people don’t necessarily feel connected to their friends and neighbors, and that can create a sense of isolation,” Vaine said.
The percentage of people who needed care but didn’t get it, meanwhile, jumped to 9.2 percent from 7.5 two years ago. The statewide average stands at 7.6 percent.
Those statistics are gleaned from a new online dashboard launched by Mental Health Colorado, an advocacy group that has combed through federal, state and local data to put together a county-by-county look at mental health metrics.
“Our data dashboard will assess mental health and substance use issues facing children, adolescents and adults in Colorado to inform policy decisions,” Sarah Davidon, the group’s research director, said in a statement.
Some of the numbers aren’t encouraging. While the number of uninsured Coloradans has steadily gone down over the years, 10.2 percent of the mountain region is still without coverage, compared with the statewide average of 6.5 percent.
“I think there is definitely a correlation between the number of people who are uninsured and the number of people who don’t seek mental health care,” Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said. “Our concern is that as health care becomes more expensive for people in Summit County, they just won’t seek any care at all.”
But even though the number of people with insurance has increased significantly in recent years, the cost of that coverage has gone up as well. Of the High Country residents who needed mental health care but didn’t get it, 46 percent said it was because insurance costs were too high. The statewide average was 39 percent.
What’s more, reimbursement rates for mental health care providers have stagnated or declined despite rising premiums, making it difficult for providers to sustain their practices, Vaine said.
“Fewer and fewer behavioral health providers are accepting insurance, and even if you’re insured, the cost can be prohibitive,” she explained.
Vaine said she recently spoke to a psychologist who said his reimbursement rates for most private insurance were around $60 per hour, a fraction of his standard rate of $200.
“He wants to accept insurance, but if he’s the only one, he gets flooded with those patients, and his payer mix isn’t able to sustain his practice anymore,” Vaine said.
It’s not all bad news, though. The High Country’s opioid overdose rate is half the state average. And while the rate of people reporting poor mental health days has increased, the portion of adults, high schoolers and children diagnosed with serious mental illness is lower than average.
Data from 2015, the latest year available from the state, show that Summit has a higher-than-average suicide rate. But the most recent statistics from the coroner’s office show that the county is on track for its lowest suicide rate in a decade.
Officials have cautioned that it’s too early to draw any conclusions from that number but say it’s an encouraging sign that local efforts to raise awareness about mental illness and lower barriers to care could be paying early dividends.
“We have been working on talking more openly about these issues and making sure that people are aware of the resources that are available,” Vaine said.
This article originally appeared in the Summit Daily.