State study shows lack of hospital beds for mentally ill, Aspen sees it first-hand

Aug 24, 2015

It's common for the Aspen jail to take in people suffering from mental illness. Pitkin County Sheriff Joe Disalvo says it's a problem because "when we don't have anywhere to put (the mentally ill), we put them in jail."
Credit pitkincounty.com

The situation is dismal in Colorado for mentally ill people who need to be hospitalized. As reported this week, a new analysis from the Colorado Department of Human Services shows the state has a significant shortage of hospital beds for this group. In Aspen, some end up in the jail and are taken to the nearest hospital - in Grand Junction - when a bed opens. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen has more.

I spoke first with Tony Passariello of Mind Springs Health in Aspen. He says the issue of Colorado having far too few hospital beds for the mentally ill is a long-standing problem.

"Colorado has a psychiatric bed problem and the Western Slope is even worse. Nationally, there are 14 beds per 100,000 people. Colorado has 10 beds per 100,000 and the Western Slope has six beds per 100,000, so we have a dearth of beds on this side of the mountain."

He says it’s not getting any better.

"The lack of psychiatric beds has changed, it’s changed since I started with Mind Springs Health. Since I’ve started a couple of the hospitals in Colorado have closed. It’s not profitable and I think that’s part of it."

Mind Springs works with people who suffer from problems like addiction and depression. But, the non profit doesn’t have hospital beds in Aspen. It does operate a hospital in Grand Junction with 32 beds. And, just this year, the Grand Junction branch added eleven beds in a program called Transitions for people with less severe mental illnesses.

"Sick people don’t belong in jail, they belong in hospitals. Criminals don’t belong in hospitals, they belong in jails," says Joe Disalvo, Sheriff of Pitkin County.

His office oversees the local jail, where people with mental illness sometimes end up. Often they’re sent there by an “M-1” order from the court because they pose a danger to themselves or others.

Joe Disalvo is the Sheriff of Pitkin County. The state has formed a task force on mental illness and the criminal justice system to help find solutions.