Denver area hospitals expand mental health and addiction treatment, but we just need more

Anne Felton, senior director for inpatient behavioral health at UCHealth, stands in the new behavioral health unit at the University of Colorado Hospital June 14, 2023 in Aurora, Colorado. UCHealth will soon open unit to support mental health crisis. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The Denver region is seeing an influx of new mental health and addiction treatment options, but it’s not yet clear how much those new and expanded programs will impact the sizable unmet demand for such care.

UCHealth and Denver Health recently opened new inpatient units, while a drug treatment facility in Parker is adding two buildings. Construction has recently begun on a new behavioral health hospital in Westminster and HealthOne hospitals in the metropolitan area have opened five units offering intensive outpatient behavioral health care to children and adults from 2020.

The need for care is significant. About 29 percent of Colorado adults who reported experiencing anxiety or depression said they were unable to get counseling as of spring 2022, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Denver Department of Public and Environmental Health’s Behavioral Health Needs Assessment, which was completed in January, found that about 41 percent of people who said they sought behavioral health care in the past year did not. obtained. The odds of not getting treatment were higher for some services than others, with 64 per cent of people saying they could not find inpatient addiction treatment.

While it’s sometimes lumped together in people’s minds, different types of behavioral healing aren’t just apples and oranges, but a whole cross section of products. Some providers only treat people with mental illness or addictions; some work with those who have both. Intensity varies from a weekly therapy session to closed wards where staff attempt to stabilize the sickest populations.

People need to go up and down the (care) continuum, and if there’s a gap in one level, it crashes the system, said Dr. Christian Thurstone, director of behavioral health services at Denver Health.

The Denver report estimates that approximately 117,000 people in the city may need behavioral health care but are not receiving it at this point. The most commonly reported obstacles to obtaining assistance were transportation, cost or lack of insurance coverage, inaccessible schedules, stigma and racism.

Any new behavioral health care capabilities are welcome, especially from a safety net provider like Denver Health, said Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. But more investment is still needed, both in opening rollaway beds and in reaching people who don’t know how to get assistance, such as the homeless, he said.

It’s all good news. We just need more of that, and in every community, she said.


The UCHealth Anschutz campus opened a new 40-bed inpatient mental health center last week.

Most people will likely make it through an emergency room, and the unit is set up to offer electroconvulsive therapy and esketamine treatment, as well as traditional medications, said Anne Felton, senior director of behavioral health at the University of Colorado Hospital. .

Electroconvulsive therapy essentially triggers a small seizure to reset parts of the brain, and esketamine is a form of the psychedelic ketamine given as a nasal spray. Both are approved for people with depression who haven’t responded to other treatments.

Because this is a new unit, UCHealth was able to design it to not only avoid devices that patients could use to harm themselves, but also to make it feel less threatening, Felton said. For example, the room where patients search for contraband looks like a doctor’s office, to make it more comfortable to undress, he said.

The University of Colorado hospital had an inpatient mental health unit until 2009, but it closed because there was a general shortage of beds at the time, Felton said. Now, the hospital has three large inpatient buildings, which have allowed it to offer a psychiatric unit again, he said.

They had to, I think, make really tough decisions based on the needs of the community, she said.

The inpatient psychiatric unit will likely lose money, but it’s a necessary part of the overall continuum of care, Felton said. Other investments since 2019 have totaled more than $100 million and included adding behavioral health providers to primary care clinics and creating virtual care options, including an intensive outpatient program with multiple therapy hours several days a week, he said.

The inpatient (cure) is just a piece, he said.

Denver Healthcare

Denver Health Medical Center opened the first licensed detoxification facility for under-18s in Colorado this spring, with plans to gradually take on more patients.

Thurstone said the hospital’s emergency department treats about 900 teenagers for substance use in a typical year. Before they opened the rehab facility, there wasn’t much they could do except resuscitate teens who’d overdosed and give them or their parents information about outpatient treatment, she said.

Now, Denver Health has a place to send young patients to be stabilized for a few days and begin drug-assisted treatment, Thurstone said. Drug-assisted treatment typically involves giving patients a milder opioid so they can function without painful withdrawal symptoms, although some people prefer an injection to block the effects of opioids in the brain.

The unit opened on May 15th. It was not fully staffed at the time, Thurstone said, but a patient had stopped breathing due to an overdose and the medical team feared they would overdose again if they went outside. While they now have a therapist on staff, they are still limiting admissions to one person a week so they can slowly build the program, he said she.

We accept babies we think will die without treatment, he said.

While the system still has many holes, it has improved significantly over the past 20 years, Thurstone said. Insurance is now required to cover behavioral health in the same way it covers physical health, and there’s growing recognition that addiction is a brain disease, not a character flaw, he said.

It was a long job, he said.

Parker’s Hope Valley

Valley Hope, a 12-Step chain of addiction treatment centers, announced that the Parker location will expand nearly 40 percent by the end of February, doubling from eight to 16 detox beds and adding more. space for residential and outpatient care. (Residential treatment differs from inpatient treatment because, while patients live where they receive care, the experience may be more like staying in a dormitory than a hospital room.)

They’re also looking to add a partial hospitalization program, where patients spend most of the week getting care, but have a few days off and go home to sleep, said Scott Spielman, executive director of Valley Hopes Colorado locations. .

A separate Valley Hope program in Littleton for pregnant women and new mothers also needs to grow if it is to meet the need, but that will depend on raising additional funds, Spielman said. It’s been a little easier than it used to be to get donors interested in addiction treatment, and the state has some funds available from deals with companies that have contributed to the opioid crisis, he said.

It’s unfortunate that his crisis-driven mental health and substance use is finally getting the funding it needs for decades, he said.

The ability to meet need is also limited by staffing, Spielman said. Addiction treatment is not an easy job and everyone in healthcare is struggling to hire after the pandemic’s upheaval, he said.

I need more nurses. I need more technicians. I need more almost everything, she said.

West Pines Behavioral Hospital

The hospital will move from its current location on the Lutheran Medical Center campus to a new building in Westminster in the fall of 2024 and will grow from 104 beds to 144.

Intermountain Health, which bought the former SCL Health hospitals last year, is replacing the Lutheran hospital building, although that wasn’t the reason for a new facility, said Jeffrey Woods, group president of operations for Acadia Healthcare .

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