Mental Health Partners, Boulder County’s largest nonprofit mental health care provider, has restored full hours of operation at its walk-in crisis center for people experiencing a mental health emergency to 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
The change took effect on June 27, according to Mental Health Partners, after the organization on Feb. 6 closed the center on weekends and slashed its weekday hours. The nonprofit has cited a shortage of crisis clinicians as the reason for the service cuts.
The facility, located at 3180 Airport Rd., is the county’s only 24/7 dedicated in-person center for people in need of emergency mental health services outside of local hospitals, which typically require longer waiting times and charge much more for health care services.
Dixie Casford, one of two CEOs at Mental Health Partners, said she is confident the organization will be able to keep the center open at its full hours of operation.
But Casford said the underlying staffing shortage that prompted the reductions in hours remains.
“We’re not fully staffed with crisis clinicians who are going to be working there long term. But we’re getting there. It’s still a workforce challenge,” Casford told Boulder Reporting Lab.
The center’s reduction in hours came at a time when local mental health workers were seeing high demand in the number of patients seeking services likely due to a mix of factors, including coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, the lingering trauma of the King Soopers mass shooting, and the destructive Marshall Fire.
To help attract more workers, Casford said the organization raised pay. According to a recent job listing, clinicians earn $29 to $35 per hour. In February, the pay range for a similar job was $23 to $31 per hour, depending on the applicant’s credentials.
Mental Health Partners also changed the work schedule to more closely match hospital work hours. Each week, clinicians work three, 12-hour days and have four-day weekends. The nonprofit is also offering to help new employees pay off student loans.
Casford said Mental Health Partners has 12 crisis clinicians on its payroll this week. It is seeking 21.
She said the organization is still looking at ways to improve its recruitment of new workers. With the hiring process ongoing, Casford said it is asking employees from other programs to work extra hours and cover shifts at the crisis center.
One program, the mobile crisis response team, is on pause in order to free up staffing for the center. Under the mobile program, mental health clinicians respond to calls from people experiencing a mental health crisis by meeting them where they are.
Other agencies in the region still provide on-call services, Casford said. 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.
The struggle to staff the center is just one example of a statewide mental health safety net ill-equipped to meet demands for services. Colorado has one of the highest rates of adult mental illness and the least access to care.
According to the Office of Behavioral Health, Aurora Mental Health Center has also sought a waiver to reduce hours of operation for its crisis center.
The state relies on 17 regional “community mental health centers,” such as Mental Health Partners, to provide emergency mental health services so people don’t have to visit hospital emergency rooms. The state gave Mental Health Partners permission to reduce the hours of the crisis center. The reduction in hours was anticipated to last about three months. But in May, due to the ongoing staffing shortage, state regulators allowed the organization to extend the reduced hours of operation for approximately one month.
State data indicates visits to the walk-in center increased throughout the pandemic. Since the reduced hours took effect in February, the trend has leveled out, according to data from the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health. In May, the most recent state data available, the center recorded 111 visits to its crisis center.
According to Casford, staff at the center have not seen a spike in the number of visits. She said she did not know whether people sought services while the center was closed.
The #BoulderStrong Resource Center, which is managed by Mental Health Partners, is open on 2935 Baseline Rd. for “for residents, visitors and first responders affected by the Boulder Table Mesa tragedy.”
People experiencing a mental health crisis can call the state’s crisis line at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255. (The new mental health crisis number, 988, is expected to be fully operational in Colorado by July 16, 2022, according to the state.)