Mental Health Partners, a nonprofit providing mental health services in Broomfield and Boulder Counties, has cut the hours of its walk-in crisis center at a time of compounding crisis in the community. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Mental Health Partners will continue operating its walk-in mental health crisis center at reduced hours for longer than it originally planned due to an ongoing staffing shortage, according to state records. 

The decision by Boulder County’s largest mental health nonprofit means residents experiencing a mental health crisis will continue to have fewer resources available to them, especially on weekends, when the crisis center is entirely closed. 

The walk-in center is designed to serve anyone who is experiencing a mental health emergency, such as psychosis or suicidal ideations, and help keep more people out of local hospital emergency rooms, where wait times can last hours. 

Mental Health Partners is required under state regulations to operate the facility on 3180 Airport Rd. at all hours of the day, seven days a week. It was the county’s only dedicated in-person crisis center of its kind open around the clock. 

In February 2022, state regulators granted the organization a waiver to cut the hours of the center from 24/7 to Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to midnight and closed weekends. The substance use withdrawal management team has remained on-site 24/7 at the walk-in crisis center, according to Mental Health Partners. 

The change was expected to continue until the end of April, as the nonprofit sought to hire more crisis clinicians, according to state records. But the nonprofit requested an extension on April 28. It said increasing hours would cause it to lose even more staff due to burnout. 

On May 10, the Office of Behavioral Health, which oversees the state’s 17 regional community mental health centers, extended that waiver to June 30.

The reduction in hours leaves an ongoing hole in the county’s mental health safety net at a time when mental health workers say demand is high. Boulder has faced one crisis after another in recent years, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the King Soopers shooting to the Marshall Fire, which destroyed more than a thousand homes in the Town of Superior and City of Louisville.

Nancy Rogers, a retired licensed clinical social worker who has helped provide therapy services for Jewish Family Service after the Marshall Fire, said people with an underlying mental health condition, financial insecurity and insufficient support system are among the most at risk of experiencing a crisis — and most in need of 24/7 crisis services. 

“There’s always people who are on the edge. But when you have a catastrophe like this, of course that’s going to bring in people who are just hanging on,” Rogers said. “It’s sad that the service they needed at that time reduced the hours.” 

In treating Marshall Fire survivors, she’s mostly seen people who need to talk to someone. But she said several were contemplating suicide. 

The Foothills Hospital in Boulder on Nov. 18, 2021. The hospital is seeing a rise in the number of breast cancer patients. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Sarah Wise, director of nursing for behavioral health services at Boulder Community Health, said the Foothills Hospital has not seen as large of an increase in patients seeking crisis services as it expected when Mental Health Partners reduced the hours of its crisis center. 

But Wise said since the start of the Covid pandemic, the hospital has seen a rise in the number of people visiting the emergency department with suicidal thoughts or having attempted suicide. 

“We’re seeing increased suicidality across the lifespan. We’ve got people 11-, 12- and 13-years-old who are coming in and needing to be put on [a 72-hour mental health] hold in order to keep them safe, as well as 60- and 70-year-olds coming in with suicidal ideation,” she said. 

State data indicates that visitations to the walk-in center increased throughout the pandemic. Since the reduced hours took effect in February, the trend has leveled out. In March 2022, 140 people visited the center, down from the recent peak of 190 in October 2021.

The nonprofit said in February it wanted 17 clinicians on its payroll to operate the walk-in center 24/7. At the time, it had six. The organization is hiring mental health crisis services therapists and paying them $25 to $35 per hour based on licensure status.

In granting the second waiver, the Office of Behavioral Health said it was concerned that the center could end up closing if it were forced to reopen to its required hours. 

“The OBH understands that denying this waiver could create circumstances prompting the [walk-in center] to close, increase stress on the current staff that would be required to work longer hours to maintain operations, and potentially create an unsafe atmosphere for both the individuals seeking crisis care and staff,” said Mary Hoefler, manager of crisis services for the Colorado Department of Human Services in a letter to Mental Health Partners approving an extension of its waiver.

In order to prioritize staffing the walk-in crisis center, the state has prohibited Mental Health Partners from using its staff for mobile crisis services. Under this mobile program, mental health clinicians respond to calls from people experiencing a mental health crisis by meeting them where they are. 

The nonprofit has said other agencies in the region will still provide the on-call services. Daniel Darting, the CEO of Signal Behavioral Health Network, an organization that contracts with the state to oversee mobile crisis services in the area, confirmed that he does not expect the continued staffing shortage at the crisis center to impact the region’s mobile crisis response.

Subsidized mental health services are available to people affected by the Marshall Fire and Covid-19 through Jewish Family Service and other providers.

People experiencing a mental health crisis should call the state’s crisis line at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255. (The state’s new crisis number, 988, is expected to be fully operational by July 16, 2022, according to the state.)

If you call 911, you can request the officer to be paired up with a licensed behavioral health specialist. The co-responder programs run by the City of Boulder and Boulder County are designed to reduce the likelihood of an arrest.

John Herrick

I report on housing, climate, health and local government for the Boulder Reporting Lab. I previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. I’m interested in stories about people, power and fairness.