Denver area hospitals expand mental health, addiction treatment


The Denver region is seeing an influx of new options for mental health and addiction treatment, but it’s not yet clear how much those new and expanded programs will make a dent in the unmet need for such care.

UCHEalth and Denver Health both recently opened new inpatient units, while the drug treatment facility in Parker is adding two buildings. Construction recently began on a new behavioral health hospital in Westminster, and HealthOne Hospitals in the metro area has opened five units starting in 2020 that will provide intensive outpatient health care for children and adults.

The need for care is important. About 29 percent of Colorado adults who reported experiencing anxiety or depression said they had not received counseling since the spring of 2022. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A Denver Department of Public Health and Environmental Protection Behavioral Health Needs Assessment completed in January found that 41% of those who said they did not seek behavioral health care in the past year. Some services were more likely than others to not receive care, with 64% saying they were unable to receive inpatient addiction treatment.

While sometimes lumped together in people’s minds, the different types of behavioral care are not just apples and oranges, but an entire product category. Some providers only treat people with mental illness or addiction. Some work with both. The intensity ranges from weekly therapy sessions to locked wards where staff try to stabilize the most ill.

“People have to go up and down the continuum (of care), and if there’s a gap at one level, it overwhelms the system,” said Dr. Christian Thurstone, director of behavioral health services at Denver Health.

Denver reports that about 117,000 people in the city may need behavioral health care but are not currently receiving it. The most commonly reported barriers to accessing care were transportation, costs or lack of insurance coverage, inaccessible hours, stigma, and racism.

Any new behavioral health care capacity is welcome, especially from safety net providers like Denver Health, said Vincent Achitti, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. But there needs to be more investment in opening more beds and reaching out to people like the homeless who don’t know how to access care, he said.

“This is all good news. “We need more and it’s in every community,” he said.


UCHEalth’s Anschutz campus opened a 40-bed inpatient mental health center last week.

Ann Felton, senior director of behavioral health at Colorado Hospital, says most people can be reached in an emergency room, and the unit is equipped to provide electroconvulsive therapy and eschatamine therapy, as well as traditional medicine.

Electroconvulsive therapy basically triggers small seizures to reset parts of the brain, and esketamine is a type of psychedelic ketamine given as a nasal spray. Both are approved for people with depression that has not responded to other treatments.

Because it’s a new unit, Euchelz was able to design it not only to remove items that patients might use to harm themselves, but also to minimize the risk, Felton said. For example, the room where patients are checked for contraband can be dressed up as a doctor’s office, she said.

The University of Colorado Hospital had an inpatient mental health unit until 2009, but that was closed because of a general lack of beds at the time, Felton said. Now, the hospital has three large inpatient buildings, allowing it to once again offer a psychiatric unit, she said.

“I think they had to make some very tough decisions based on the needs in the community,” she said.

The inpatient psychiatric unit may lose money, but it’s an important part of the overall continuum of care, Felton said. Other investments since 2019 totaling more than $100 million include adding behavioral health providers to primary care clinics and establishing virtual care options, including an intensive outpatient program with several hours of therapy several days a week, he said.

“Patient (care) is just one piece,” she said.

Denver Health

Denver Health Medical Center opened its first licensed detoxification service for people under 18 in Colorado this spring, with plans to gradually accept more patients.

Thurstone said the hospital’s emergency room handles about 900 juveniles for substance abuse in a typical year. Before opening the detox facility, he said, there wasn’t much they could do other than resuscitate teenagers who had overdosed and provide them or their parents with information about outpatient treatment.

Now, Denver Health has a place to send young patients to stabilize for a few days and begin medication-assisted treatment, Thurstone said. Medication-assisted treatment involves giving patients mild opioids to function without withdrawal symptoms. Although some people choose the shot to prevent the effects of opioids in the brain.

The room opened on May 15. He wasn’t fully staffed at the time, Thurstone said, but a patient had stopped breathing from an overdose, and the medical team feared he might overdose again if they left. Now that they have a therapist on staff, they’re still limiting admissions to one person a week so they can gradually build the program, he said.

“We’re admitting kids who we think would die” without treatment, he said.

While the system still has many holes, it has improved significantly over the past 20 years, Thurstone says. Just as behavioral health covers physical health, insurance is now needed, he said, adding that addiction is increasingly recognized as a brain disease, not a behavioral disorder.

“This was a long stick.

Parker Valley Hope

Valley Hope, a chain of 12-step addiction treatment centers, announced in late February that its Parker location will expand by nearly 40%, doubling from eight to 16 detox beds and adding more space for residential and outpatient treatment. (Residential differs from inpatient care because when patients live where they receive care, the experience can be more like staying in a dorm than a hospital room.)

Scott Spielman, executive director of Valley Hope’s Colorado locations, said they are looking to add a semi-hospital treatment program where patients spend most of the week in treatment, but have a few days off and go home to sleep.

A separate Valley Hope program for pregnant women and new mothers in Littleton will need to grow if it can meet the demand, but that depends on raising more funding, Spielman said. Getting donors interested in addiction treatment is a little easier than it used to be, and the state has some funding in settlements with companies that have contributed to the opioid crisis, he said.

“It’s a shame it’s being led by a crisis, but mental health and substance abuse is finally getting the funding it’s needed for decades,” he said.

The ability to meet demand is also limited by the number of employees, Spielman said. Addiction treatment is no easy task, and everyone in health care is struggling to recruit after the epidemic, he said.

“I need more nurses. I need more techniques. I want more – almost everything,” he said.

West Pines Behavioral Hospital

The hospital is moving from its current Lutheran Medical Center campus to a new building in Westminster in late 2024 and growing from 104 beds to 144.

Mountain Health, It bought the former SCL Health Hospitals last year. Lutheran Hospital is in the process of replacing the building, although that’s not the reason for a new facility, said Jeffrey Woods, president of Acadia Healthcare’s operations group.


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