By: Deepan Dutta

Gini Bradley speaks to dozens of representatives from Summit County government, non-profit and health agencies during a Building Hope meeting back in 2016. Building Hope has come up with a list of strategies to fix Summit’s mental health care system.

Half a million Coloradans with a mental health disorder do not get any treatment. Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation and Summit County is on track to break its own record rate. What can be done about it? Where does the county even start?

Building Hope, a nonprofit focused on improving mental health care access and suicide prevention resources, has been examining Summit’s mental health system for two years, looking for gaps and cracks through which we are losing people to mental health crises. Aside from meetings and discussions, a mapping project was also implemented that followed users as they tried to access mental health services.

Over the past year, the organization has been working with partners across the county, as well as Denver-based mental health advocacy nonprofit Mental Health Colorado, to come up with a set of suggestions on how to get the entire mental health system to work better for residents who need it most.

During the Board of County Commissioners’ Tuesday morning work session, Building Hope’s community organizer Gini Bradley presented a list of recommendations for how to bring system-wide improvement to the county.

“We’re a small community, and when someone commits suicide, everyone knows about it and everyone is affected by it.”Gini Bradley, Community organizer for Building Hope

At the top of the list of recommendations was to bring mental health services to schools. Andrew Romanoff, CEO of Mental Health Colorado, noted that half of all lifetime mental health disorders begin at the age of 14. Having a provider on-site at school showed dramatic results, he said.

“When students are referred to mental health services outside of school, only about 10 percent end up getting that care,” Romanoff told the commissioners. “But if you have a professional on-site at a school, the utilization of mental health services goes from 10 to 90 percent. It’s a powerful argument for school-based mental health services.”

Bradley proposed to put a full-time therapist at four of Summit’s school-based health centers to increase access and put less of a gap between kids and the treatment they need.

The next major recommendation was expanding substance abuse outpatient services.

“We’ve all known someone who suffers with a substance abuse issue,” Bradley said. “Yet Summit County does not have any continuous in- or out-patient provider for adults or children.”

The main issue when it comes to substance abuse outpatient care is that it is very expensive. Bradley recommended the county work with partners such as Mind Springs Health or an external provider to bring those services to Summit County.

Another major area of concern is suicide prevention. Summit County’s suicide rate is three times the national average, and Building Hope was established after the suicide of a well-known Summit resident two years ago.

“We’re a small community, and when someone commits suicide, everyone knows about it and everyone is affected by it,” Bradley said.

Given that suicides usually occur well after a mental health disorder has developed into a full-blown crisis, Bradley suggested a series of steps to prevent the crisis to begin with, such as introducing mental health screening for children and adolescents, introducing suicide prevention as part of a health curriculum, bringing in therapy providers who specialize in suicide prevention and improving coordination between existing providers and agencies to prevent communication gaps.

One of the last major recommendations was for Summit County to form and deploy a public safety crisis team. Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons pointed out that almost every major call his office responds to now “has some nexus with substance abuse or mental health disorders,” and those calls have been steadily rising. FitzSimons mentioned a recent incident where a Breckenridge police officer was brutally assaulted by an individual who probably had some kind of mental health disorder as a sign of how dangerous this growing problem has become.

As a solution that improves and speeds up responses to cases where a mental health crisis may be involved, as well as to free up law enforcement resources, Building Hope suggested creating a public safety crisis team consisting of a law enforcement officer, a paramedic and a mental health counselor who would respond to calls together.

“They’d stay there as long as needed to get help for the person in crisis,” FitzSimons said. “Combining medical and mental health providers with an officer, it’s like a one-stop shop for any mental health call.”

Other suggestions Building Hope offered on improving the system included increasing community outreach and education efforts, improving care for persistently mentally ill patients and streamlining administration to be more efficient and better connected.

“We’ve come a long way since I was with Red, White & Blue (fire protection district) back in 1981,” Bradley said, “but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Originally appeared in the Summit Daily.