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Walk-In Centers Are Colorado's Most High Profile Mental Health Change

Grace Hood
Mental Health Therapist Shaundra Drsysdale updates daily use numbers inside a Crisis Support Services Center in Greeley. It’s one of 13 places opened up across the state where people in a mental health emergency can walk in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.";

As jury selection starts for the Aurora Theater Shooting, there's a quiet shift underway in Colorado's mental health crisis services. In 2013, Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislators approved $20 million for a statewide hotline, walk-in stabilization centers, mobile and respite services.

The most visible sign of the change are Colorado's 13 walk-in centers.

Inside a Greeley Crisis Support Services Center, the waiting room is quiet and softly lit. From the reception desk to the waiting chairs, everything is brand new. A receptionist does not ask someone in crisis to fill out forms. There are no insurance cards exchanged.

Larry Pottorff, Executive Director of North Range Behavioral Health said that's by design.

"The first priority is why are you here and how can we help?" said Pottorff.

North Range is one of several agencies partnering with the state to provide new crisis services in the years since the Aurora shooting.

"I really think of it as a new way of responding to people in crisis," said Pottorff. "Historically that's been done through emergency rooms."

Over the past decade, emergency rooms and even jails have become places that offer acute treatment for mental health issues as funding for mental health services in Colorado has declined.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Inside a new respite care area, crisis patients can stay for up to 14 days. The program seeks to transition people from a place of crisis to stabilization, and safe return into the community.

To change the picture, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado legislators created Colorado Crisis Services, a statewide response system that uses new funding and leverages existing resources with community health providers like North Range Behavioral Health.

State Sen. Irene Aguilar co-sponsored legislation that created the framework for the system. She said the Aurora Theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings highlighted a need in Colorado.

"One of the issues that both of these events brought up was that we frequently have people struggling with mental health issues and can't get the care that they need," she said.

Aguilar said future success depends on creating a continuum of care: from crisis response, to stabilization, to safe return into the community.

"This is not just a 'let's settle the fire', but let's get rid of whatever else is happening going on under there so that this doesn't happen again," she said.

The earlier the intervention, the better.

Linda Rosenberg, President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, said research shows that getting people the right cluster of services early on will help curb future problems.

“The system you’ve created in Colorado is a way to do that,” said Rosenberg. “You can prevent not only bad things from happening, but you can prevent a life of disability.”

In a newly created respite care program — where crisis patients can stay for up to 14 days — there's a close hand-off between walk-in crisis centers and community services.

Greeley's respite center can house up to 10 patients at a time. Help comes from mental health therapists, and from peer specialists like Cindy Binger. More than a decade ago, Binger struggled to make sense of traumatic events that happened in her life.

"When you go through crisis, you're confused," said Binger. "You can't distinguish from right from wrong. Your thought patterns are off, they don't gather and complete. If the respite would have been there for me, it would have made it easier."

Through 2015, Colorado will closely track phone calls, walk-in clients and other services to assess staffing needs. Practitioners know the new system won't prevent all future tragedies. Their hope is to simply narrow the cracks, making it harder for the next person in mental health crisis to slip through.

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