Aurora hospital opens outpatient mental health center amid growing need for adolescent services

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AURORA | Citing an intense need for adolescent mental health resources, the Medical Center of Aurora opened its first outpatient facility designed to treat children with needs too complex for therapy alone.

The facility, which the hospital says is unique to the region, opened in October with a small team of therapists, behavioral analysts, counselors and social workers. The intensive outpatient program is designed to treat about 40 children ages 9-17 who struggle with a variety of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, self-injury, difficulty regulating feelings and more. 

Outpatient Services Director Stephanie Camacho said that about a year ago it became apparent that this type of program was urgently needed. More and more parents were arriving in the hospital’s emergency room looking for help for their child. 

“We don’t even have enough inpatient adolescent and child beds, let alone outpatient services, so we have these kids who kinda fall through the gaps of care, because they’re stuck in an emergency room waiting on a bed to open up somewhere,” Camacho said. “And emergency rooms are certainly not where you’re going to get your best mental health care. I think it was something that we just continued to see a need for and more with younger kiddos.”

Pediatric health specialists say adolescent mental health is in crisis mode. Last spring, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared the state was experiencing a “state of emergency” for pediatric mental health and urged creating more funding and resources for the problem. 

Eight months later, the hospital created a “mental health-in-chief” position in response to the declaration. 

Local school districts have also recognized the growing need for more services. That became particularly acute after the Aurora Mental Health Center closed its intensive outpatient program for young people at the end of the previous school year.

AMHC said that the program was not financially feasible to keep open, but Aurora-area school district officials said the closure came as a blow as the local treatment options have continued to dwindle over the years.

“It was a definite shock for us,” said Tony Poole, an assistant superintendent in the Cherry Creek School District.

In response to the scale of the need, Cherry Creek has partnered with Children’s Hospital Colorado and the University of Colorado School of Medicine to open its own day treatment facility for district students with serious mental health issues. The facility will be able to treat about 60 kids at a time and is slated to open in the fall of next year.

“I know that the school systems we work really closely with are doing a great job at putting more of a focus on mental health (and) trying to provide more of those services with the school. But in all reality, it’s just not enough,” said Camacho.

The outpatient program is meant to serve children who are struggling more significantly and need help beyond seeing a therapist once a week. 

“(Intensive outpatient programming) is really going to be for the kids that can still function in school…but it’s very, very challenging, and very challenging to follow rules and act within the appropriate social norms of school,” Camacho said. “These are the kids that are getting kicked out of class all the time. There’s just so much more to those behaviors.”

Participants of the facility attend at least three sessions per week and include a variety of therapies, from group-based models to individual counseling interventions. 

“The focus is really a group modality, because we’re working on a lot of communication skills, social skills, pieces like that,” Camacho said. “Distress tolerance is something that we can certainly all work on, but definitely for our kiddos. That’s why a group setting is really our main form of treatment.”

The center, part of the HealthONE system, has a crisis assessment team  that is available every day. For parents who aren’t sure where to seek help for their child, Camacho said it’s a good place to start. They can be reached at 844-556-2012. 

“You will always get someone in person when you call that number, which I think is a huge deal,” she said.

— Staff writer Carina Julig contributed to this report

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