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West Pines Hospital, a 144-bed behavioral health hospital expected to open in fall 2024 in Westminster, will have in-patient psychiatric beds, as well as step-down day programs. (Provided by Intermountain Health)

The only stabilization unit in the state’s crisis services system that’s solely for adolescents used to help about 2,000 kids each year. 

Now, because of a shortage of mental health workers, it can take only 1,000.

The other half of the children and teens in mental health crises are sent elsewhere, or more likely, left to wait in emergency rooms at hospitals across Colorado. 

“It breaks my heart to talk about the kids we are having to turn away,” said Kiara Kuenzler, CEO of the Jefferson Center, a community mental health center that oversees the 24/7 crisis stabilization unit in Lakewood. “We track every single person that we are not able to serve. It’s almost always due to not having the workforce capacity.” 

Colorado Crisis Line: A statewide hotline. 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.

The unit, called New Vistas, has 16 beds for kids ages 5 to 18, but much of the time, there are only enough doctors and therapists to keep eight or 10 of those beds in use, Kuenzler said. 

That’s where new funding from Colorado’s portion of the federal pandemic relief package is supposed to help. Jefferson Center is receiving $2 million to hire additional staff and offer incentives to keep current clinicians on the payroll in what has long been a high-burnout career. The grant is part of more than $400 million in American Recovery Act funds that Colorado lawmakers divided up for mental health care. 

The state Behavioral Health Administration has awarded 80 grants to local governments, hospitals and community organizations to fill gaps in mental health care. Those include the Stride Sober Living, the Naloxone Project, Young People in Recovery and the Aspen Effect. Some grants are to create more psychiatric beds or residential beds that are one step down from a hospital, while others are to build up therapy and substance abuse programs.

The administration also doled out 29 other grants to address mental health spefically for people in the criminal justice system. 

New 144-bed behavioral health hospital rising north of Denver

At the same time, a few hospital systems in the state are making new investments in mental health care, raising hope that Colorado will make progress on its severe lack of services. The latest report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, which ranks states on behavioral health services, placed Colorado at 34th in the nation and counted 543 beds in this state. 

That was about 10 beds per 100,000 people, far fewer than the 50 beds per 100,000 people that mental health experts say is needed. The Denver area alone needs about 1,000 more beds, said Dr. Jeffrey Woods, operations group president for Acadia Healthcare. 

“That is a level of near crisis,” he said.  


Construction of a new 144-bed behavioral health hospital in Westminster began this month, a joint partnership between Acadia Healthcare and Intermountain Health, which was SCL Health

West Pines Hospital will have in-patient psychiatric beds, as well as step-down programs for people who will live at home but spend several hours each day in treatment at the hospital. It’s expected to open in fall 2024. 

“For too long there has been this dearth of behavioral health services available, because of stigma and lack of public will to lower that stigma,” Woods said.

It’s not a net gain of 144 beds for the north Denver area, however. As the new hospital opens, SCL Intermountain is expected to close its current 96-bed behavioral health unit at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, which is constructing a new hospital building. 

While state and federal laws have attempted to create insurance parity by requiring that insurance plans cover mental health care similar to other medical care, that’s not what’s driving the new construction, Woods said.

“I would not say that there is a rush to build hospitals because of profitability, but rather because the need is there,” he said. “We care for the whole person — body, mind and spirit.” 

A drawing of the new West Pines Hospital coming to Westminster. (Provided by Intermountain Health)

The new West Pines will have units for children as young as 5, teenagers, adults and seniors. One unit will specialize in treating older people dealing with dementia along with grief, depression and mood disorders. Future units, similar to Acadia’s hospitals in other states, might focus on mothers with postpartum depression or people with intellectual disabilities and co-occurring mental health issues.

The groundbreaking for the new hospital comes as UC Health University of Colorado Hospital prepares to open a new 40-bed psychiatric unit this summer. 

72 young people died by suicide in Colorado in 2021

Even with the $2 million grant, the adolescent crisis stabilization unit in Lakewood will struggle, Kuenzler said. 

The unit lost $2.5 million last year, and when accounting for the grant and the costs of increasing capacity, the unit will lose between $1 million and $2 million, she said. Plus, the funding from the American Rescue Plan Act is one-time money. 

“We are still struggling to figure out the sustainable funding model,” she said, noting that a 24/7 crisis center has to stay open whether it has two kids or all 16 beds are full on a given day. “We’re hoping there will be more state-level funding over time.

“It would pay off in so many lives saved and so much money saved in the long run.”

New Vistas is a not-for-profit residential facility for children and teens that has operated under a subsidiary of the Jefferson Center called Jefferson Hills. The mental health center is now absorbing the subsidiary and trying to create a seamless system so kids could easily transition between the crisis stabilization unit and the therapy programs offered at the mental health center. 

The stabilization unit in 2015 became part of Colorado Crisis Services, a statewide network of walk-in crisis centers, mobile units and a hotline. The system was created in response to the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater. People can access the services regardless of their ability to pay.

New Vistas is a 16-bed crisis stabilization unit for adolescents in Lakewood. A state grant is expected to boost staff. (Provided by Jefferson Center for Mental Health)

Expansion of services, particularly for young people, has never been needed more, Kuenzler said. 

In 2021, 53 young people ages 15-18 and 19 people ages 10-14 died by suicide in Colorado, according to the Jefferson Center.

The crisis stabilization unit is seeing younger patients, including a “dramatic increase” in the number of children ages 5-11. The proportion of kids ages 5-11 was once 10-20%. Now, it’s 40-60%. 

And children and teens referred to the unit have more acute issues than in the past, including more dangerous suicide attempts, Kuenzler said. 

“These are really young kiddos,” she said. “We need to do a lot more to invest early and often and with the right resources for behavioral health.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...