On Edge: Mental Health in Colorado

Our investigation into Colorado’s safety net system. And our profiles of Coloradans facing challenges in a time of crisis.

About the Project

Colorado has the nation’s highest rate of adult mental illness and lowest access to care. The journalists of our state have joined forces to find out why. COLab and our partner outlets – big and small, urban and rural, reporting via radio, TV, online sites and the printed word – are in our second year digging deeply into the reasons Colorado’s mental health system and Coloradans themselves are on edge.

On Edge: Outlets Unite To Take a Closer Look
COLab’s initial, December 2021 investigation into Colorado’s frayed mental health safety net prompted whistleblowers and Coloradans who have been turned away from care to come forward and share their stories. The journalists of our state decided the only way to do justice to their experiences was to pool our resources. Thus formed a team of some of the state’s most tenacious investigative reporters and editors working together to understand why so many Coloradans aren’t getting the mental health care they need.

In this phase of the On Edge project, Gazette Reporter Christopher Osher and COLab’s Susan Greene uncovered a report, which state officials had been hiding, showing potentially deadly prescription errors at a Grand Junction-based community mental health center responsible for treating residents in 10 Western Slope counties. In the coming months, we’ll also be tracking legislation seeking to reform Colorado’s mental health safety-net system and working with Colorado Public Radio, 9News, the Colorado Sun and COLab data journalist Burt Hubbard investigating ongoing concerns about it.

All stories produced as part of this phase of On Edge will be available for free to COLab’s more than 160 partner news outlets statewide, and all data from our reporting will be shared as well, with coaching for local journalists on how to tailor these stories to their local audiences.

On Edge: The Initial Investigation
COLab’s Susan Greene found in the initial phase of the On Edge investigation that the 17 regional “community mental health centers” that are supposed to serve as the core of Colorado’s safety net system are failing many Coloradans and operating with very little state oversight. Greene found the state has been giving the private, nonprofit centers billions of dollars in non-compete contracts and a privileged rate status for half a century, and that state regulators have a long pattern of caving to pressures by the centers’ lobbying group to avoid transparency and accountability.

She compiled and shared hard-to-find data about all 17 centers and worked with reporters statewide to draw from that data in reporting about their local safety-net systems.

Veteran mental health reporter Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Sun looked at how an unprecedented shortage of behavioral health professionals has affected care in Colorado’s community mental health centers, especially in the context of unprecedented need triggered by the pandemic.

COLab’s Greene investigated Mind Springs Health, the troubled nonprofit responsible mental health safety net care in 10 Western Slope counties, and its failure to provide many of the services – including crisis care – for which it has been paid. This story led to the resignation of Mind Springs’ CEO and two other top executives. It also prompted three state agencies to investigate Mind Springs and a bill calling for the state auditor to not only investigate all 17 of Colorado’s community mental health centers, but also how effectively the state is overseeing them.

On Edge: Personal Stories
It was December 2020, and Coloradans were grappling with the body blows dealt by the pandemic, the shaky economy, climate-change driven fire and drought, civil rights reckoning and a polarizing election. COLab’s Tina Griego and Susan Greene set out to start conversations in a state with among the highest rates of stigma around mental health – and discomfort talking about it.

They started with a broad overview of how the extraordinary confluence of major crises was triggering Coloradans as communities, as families, as individuals, and how it was testing a state safety net that already had greater demand for behavioral health services than it could provide. Then, for the next seven weeks, they detailed the lived experiences of everyday Coloradans who were struggling. Among the people they profiled: a COVID survivor afraid to leave her home, a doomscroller, an elderly pool player grappling with isolation, a teenage suicide survivor and Colorado’s top mental health official speaking out for the first time about his own history of severe depression. Their 13 intimate profiles helped break down barriers to discussing mental health at a time when Coloradans sorely needed to do so. This first phase of On Edge led to a live televised panel conversation about mental health that involved the audiences of COLab’s media partners statewide.

Knowing that mental health could be making headlines statewide for months and years to come, Greene and Griego also trained and coached journalists from partner outlets on best practices in reporting on what can be an extremely tender topic. Seven of COLab’s partner outlets went on to produce in-depth and beautifully rendered projects demystifying behavioral health challenges in their communities.


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How We're Making a Difference

View "On Edge: A Statewide Conversation About Colorado’s Mental Health Safety Net System"

On May 17th, the Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab, in collaboration with Colorado Public Radio, hosted a statewide conversation about mental health…

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Reflections

On Edge: Mental Health in Colorado

Related Opportunities

This project was made possible through collaboration between multiple newsrooms and journalists across the state, who are active partners in the Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab.

To support the statewide effort, donate to the Colorado News Collaborative.