Community roots in service run deep for mental health centers across Colorado

By Kara Johnson-Hufford, CBHC CEO

In Greeley, teachers self-administered a survey in 1913 that revealed the need for a mental health center for their students. When the center opened, a child psychiatrist provided services one day a month. Now known as North Range Behavioral Health, the center has been continuously providing services and expanding well beyond the needs of students. This includes a safety net of care and interventions for the full range of community needs, including significant, persistent mental health issues to crisis intervention to substance use disorders.

Across El Paso, Park and Teller counties, Diversus Health continues the role started 145 years ago when the Springs Relief Society took on the job of supporting the area’s most vulnerable by delivering coal, lumber and clothing.

In Boulder County, Mental Health Partners began as a clinic within Boulder General Hospital more than 60 years ago. What started as an attempt by a dedicated group of volunteers to get mental health services for those in Boulder General as well as after-care services for individuals who were leaving in- patient psychiatric care now continues this role as well as expanded efforts to provide the full range of crisis mental health services, substance use disorder supports and mental health services for individuals who need everything from general counseling to those whose issues require deeper interventions.

These origin stories say a lot about why community mental health centers exist across the state and why the 16 organizations who make up the system look the way they do. They’ve always been driven by community need. In fact, the initial community mental health center system was built or evolved specifically to take care of the most seriously mentally ill in communities.

Through a series of federal laws passed from 1965 through 1981, the federal government moved away from oversight of this kind of care, opting instead to block grant decreasing amounts of money to individual states to stand up their own systems of care for the most vulnerable. With federal funds drying up and state funding not yet matching the previous investment, many community mental health centers were struggling to survive. The ability to receive Medicaid dollars, approved by the Colorado legislature in 1980, was a lifeline for many communities who had little to no other avenues to support those who most needed the help.

Today, our state’s 17 community mental health centers and clinics serve more than 200,000 Coloradans each year with a range of mental health and substance use disorder services. By building and maintaining infrastructure in every area of the state, much of it operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, these community centers are delivering foundational mental health and addiction recovery services in the most effective, efficient way possible.

And they are doing it, as always at the request of their communities, to meet the needs identified on the ground. You see this in the programs of Southeast Health Group, now merged with Valley-Wide Health Systems. As farmers and ranchers in the area began to experience some of the nation’s highest suicide rates, centers there adapted to provide outreach and supports tailored to that community’s culture and need. Denver’s WellPower responded to persistent challenges for individuals living unhoused by developing permanent supportive housing to meet a variety of needs for individuals living with mental health issues. Community Reach Center saw the unmet need of children with serious mental health issues. The center now operates two pediatric practices to ensure at-risk children with special needs who have Medicaid, can receive the care they need.

The roots of Colorado’s community mental health centers run deep. While each may look different, they all grow from the seed of community.