Nearly half of Colorado’s rural counties are without a mental health provider

DENVER – It took a tragedy in Texas to discuss for government officials the need for more mental health providers in the state. Dozens of counties there do not have mental health providers.

There is a similar story in Colorado; of the state’s 64 counties, a 2020 report from the Colorado Rural Health Center found that 22 counties did not have a psychologist or psychiatrist working there.

“Colorado ranks near the bottom or the bottom when it comes to the need of adults for access to care,” said Vincent Atchiti, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.

Telehealth is helping to fill some of the gaps, but Michelle Mills, chief executive of the Colorado Rural Health Center, says telehealth poses its own challenges.

“One of them is broadband access. So we have a lack of broadband or sometimes a lack of broadband in our rural communities, ”Mills said.

Adult populations in these communities may also not feel as comfortable with telehealth and there is a loss of personal connection between the patient and the specialist.

The challenge of finding more behavioral health providers is not new; Ingrid Johnson, president and CEO of the Colorado Nursing Center, says it’s been a persistent problem for years, but has worsened since COVID with more burnout among professionals and more need among patients.

“Family nurse practitioners tell me that probably 30 to 50 percent of their cases have behavioral health problems,” Johnson said.

Recruiting and retaining professionals in rural communities poses its own set of unique challenges because it can be difficult to find someone who wants to live in these areas.

“It’s not just finding people who want to do it and are willing to go through education, spending and everything that plays into it. It’s about having a place where they can live – what they can afford to live in and what their salary looks like once they’re there, “Johnson said.

That’s why CCNE has launched its Grow Your Own program to recruit nurses who already live and work in the community.

The aim is to help fund their education and to provide them with mentoring or coaching to help them obtain a certificate in the practice of psychiatric mental health.

“If you can find them within these communities and somehow raise and improve and train them, then we are much more successful in building that workforce,” Johnson said.

Part of the deal that CCNE makes with providers requires them to stay and work in their communities for at least two years for each year of funding they receive.

So far, the program has successfully helped fund the training of 150 nurses. Only six of them left their communities after fulfilling their duties.

Dana Murphy-Parker is one of the success stories of the program. She has been a nurse at Grand Junction for more than 40 years and completed the Grow Your Own program to become a practicing psychiatric mental health nurse.

“When I heard about this program through CCNE, I just thought it was really great because that’s what we need; we need more education so that people can enrich and increase the number of behavioral health in our communities, ”Murphy-Parker said.

Even with professionals like her, Murphy-Parker says the need is great and there are long lists of people waiting to be treated.

“Sometimes it’s a challenge to schedule everyone or to schedule people when they really need and want to be seen,” she said.

She would also like to see more counselors and caseworkers in the community. Murphy-Parker could have retired so far, but she said there were too many people who needed help and too few people to do the job.

Johnson hopes the Grow Your Own program will help fill in some of these gaps. However, she says the program needs more funding and more people will be interested in this difficult job.

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