In preparing this newsletter, I was struck by the broad array of initiatives led by our faculty to address community mental health needs. I was also reminded of the complex challenges our state faces.
According to a study by nonprofit Mental Health America, when considering prevalence of mental illness and access to care, Colorado is ranked 30th nationwide. For youth, we rank 11th in the U.S., but for adults, our state sits squarely at the bottom, at 45th. Clearly, we have a long way to go.
While numbers like these can make the situation feel insurmountable, at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, we are forging pathways and partnerships to bring mental health resources to more of those who need them.
Colorado, like the nation, is experiencing a pediatric mental health state of emergency, with skyrocketing demand for services and growing numbers of young people arriving at emergency departments in crisis.
In our state, suicide is the leading cause of death for children and youth ages 10 to 24. Over just the past three years, Children’s Hospital Colorado has seen a 57% increase in emergency department visits for mental health services.
Through a new partnership, we are working to reach more young people with targeted intervention earlier while loosening pressure on our hospitals.
This fall, students grades four through 12 in the Cherry Creek School District will have access to mental health treatment at an innovative facility staffed by clinicians, psychiatrists and social workers from our campus.
Believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S., Traverse Academy was made possible by a partnership of the district with our Department of Psychiatry and the CU School of Medicine.
“It’s almost like a start-up venture for folks in the mental health field.”
- Ron-Li Liaw, MD
The day treatment facility will be equipped to serve 60 children and adolescents at a given time, providing highly tailored treatment while also enabling students to continue their studies.
Our team of providers will work alongside district nurses, school counselors and school psychologists to help students and their families address anxiety, depression and other conditions, at varying levels of care.
“Many of us who go into child mental health are really excited about working in schools and don’t always have the opportunity to develop and be a part of these types of innovative partnerships,” said Ron-Li Liaw, MD, director of child and adolescent mental health in the Department of Psychiatry and first-ever mental health chief at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “It’s almost like a start-up venture for folks in the mental health field.”
Traverse Academy has already drawn national recognition for its novel approach, as well as outreach from interested school districts in Colorado and other states. Our hope is the partnership will serve as an effective model for reaching young people in need nationwide.
Project HairCare, a partnership of the Department of Family Medicine and the Colorado Black Health Collaborative, is a pilot program developed to meet Black adults where they are by equipping local barbershops and salons with mental health knowledge and resources.
As trusted members of their communities, barbers and stylists provide safe spaces for the clients they see regularly, where discussion of challenges like loneliness, family stress or substance use often naturally occur.
The idea is simple: engage interested shop operators and share knowledge and tools they can put to work with their clients as opportunities arise. So far, 22 long-established operators from barbershops and salons along Colfax and in northeast Denver have taken part.
At monthly educational sessions, the group has discussed common client concerns, including PTSD, mental wellness, depression and suicide, and grief and loss. And, as importantly, the group has built a network of support for one another.
“They provide a sacred space in the community, and now this group is becoming a sacred space for them.”
- Alex Reed, PsyD, MPH
Clinical psychologist and project co-leader Alex Reed, PsyD, MPH, said the group’s dedication to helping their clients and one another has been inspiring. “There’s this incredible comfort between the members where they’re sharing their own stories, their own challenges with mental health and what they’ve seen with their clients,” he said. “They provide a sacred space in the community, and now this group is becoming a sacred space for them as well.”
Longtime area physician Terri Richardson, MD, co-leads the program. She notes that Project HairCare is not a research project for research’s sake, but a “real life project” ‒ one that provides practical tools that are easy to use and share with others.
The team continues to build its toolkit, taking inspiration from the NBA’s Mind Health initiative. Reed, in his fourth season as team psychologist for the Denver Nuggets, is collaborating with the leaders of the NBA’s program to share strategies, create culturally informed materials and find new approaches to reducing stigma.
On the heels of a successful pilot, Project HairCare is seeking resources to expand to barbershops and salons beyond Denver, into Aurora and Colorado Springs next.
For over two decades, faculty in our Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center (RMPRC) at the Colorado School of Public Health have been working with underserved communities in the San Luis Valley to improve mental and physical health and prevent disease.
This rural area of south-central Colorado, between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges, spans six counties and is home to approximately 46,000 residents. Nearly half are Hispanic, and about one-quarter live in poverty.A current project called STANCE targets adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, among people in the valley, with the goal of preventing their transmission from one generation to the next.
ACEs include traumatic events, such as abuse, violence and neglect, and growing up in unstable households or with family members who have mental illnesses or substance use disorders. Six in 10 adults in the U.S. report at least one such experience before age 18, with women and some racial and ethnic minority groups at greater risk.
These childhood experiences have profound impacts across the lifespan, including increased risk for mental illness, substance abuse and chronic health problems. The good news is, preventing ACEs can lead to reduced health impacts ‒ by some estimates, decreasing the number of adults with depression in this country by as much as 44%.
In partnership with the San Luis Valley Community Advisory Board, RMPRC Director Jenn Leiferman, PhD, and the STANCE team are assessing children aged 0 to 5 and their caregivers, bringing social-emotional development programming to 700 kids in 15 early childcare education settings, and using social networks to find ways to better meet the needs of those with high numbers of ACEs.
“We are working with the San Luis Valley to reduce ACEs in their community, while we build a successful program that can be adopted by public health practitioners nationwide,” Leiferman said. “Our main goal is for the community to sustain STANCE after this initial five-year period. We also plan to disseminate our toolkit to communities across Colorado and around the country for further adoption.”
These projects represent just a fraction of the efforts underway at CU Anschutz to address the mental health challenges facing people in our state and beyond.
There is much to take pride in ‒ and take inspiration from ‒ as we work to make high-quality mental health care a reality for our communities and reduce the mental health burden for the next generation.