Apr 14, 2021 - News

Mental health poised to be Colorado's next pandemic priority

Illustration of a person sitting under a cloud shaped like a virus

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic left no life unscathed, and the universal experience of enduring a tumultuous year has made health and wellness a pressing priority for people from all walks of life.

  • "There’s a new dynamic. … It’s almost like it’s OK to get help," Dr. Carl Clark, president and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver, tells Axios.

Why it matters: Health officials for months have predicted the next looming health crisis could be a mental health pandemic, resulting from a culmination of pandemic-induced factors, including social isolation, high stress and devastating loss.

Preliminary data support those suspicions:

  • Overdose deaths in Denver spiked by about 64% in 2020, according to the latest data available from the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner.
  • Alcohol sales have also soared in Colorado throughout the pandemic, another signal many people are "self-soothing" to cope, Clark said.
  • Meanwhile, demand for kids’ mental health services has doubled at the Mental Health Center of Denver, as children struggle to adjust to virtual learning and loneliness.

What's new: Colorado lawmakers say they are taking an aggressive approach to tackling mental health issues.

  • Senate Bill 137, the Behavioral Health Recovery Act of 2021, would funnel $34 million into programs aimed at improving the well-being of Coloradans, including substance abuse and mental health initiatives, Colorado Politics reports.
  • House Bill 1258 would allocate $9 million for three free therapy sessions for children 18 and younger to help them get through the pandemic, per the Colorado Sun.

Yes, but: It’s not just lawmakers placing a sharper focus on mental health post-pandemic.

  • "I’ve had more requests to speak to business owners during this pandemic year than I have in my whole career, because they are actually concerned about their staff and want to know how to help," Clark said.
  • Employees across industries also are increasingly demanding their companies offer mental health support, in addition to standard medical benefits.

Of note: Telemedicine could be key to addressing the increase in mental health needs, Dr. Connie Price, the chief medical officer at Denver Health, tells Axios.

  • A hybrid model of services gives people more flexibility to access the health care they need and leads to fewer no-show appointments.

The big picture: "If we don’t deeply address the emotional impact the pandemic has had on people, we will see a slower recovery overall," Clark warned.

This story first appeared in the Axios Denver newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.


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