It’s easy to talk to Leah Hemeyer and Ashley Prescott. They are friendly, compassionate and understand complex factors that can make a person feel hopeless about their life. They also know about resources that help people struggling with depression get on a path toward feeling better. “There are a lot of really good resources in this community, but many people don’t know how to get to them,” said Prescott, a behavior health specialist. Prescott’s and Hemeyer’s work is part of a program that aims to identify people with depression early and provide them help to avoid potential crises.
The program grew from the Northwest Colorado Community Health Partnership, a group of healthcare organizations and physicians working to address and improve healthcare issues in the region. Concerned with high rates of suicide and substance abuse in Northwest Colorado, the group wanted to understand why more people weren’t taking advantage of affordable treatment at Colorado West Mental Health centers in Steamboat Springs and Craig. “We want to create awareness that we have a sliding scale that goes all the way to zero,” said Tom Gangel, regional director for Colorado West Mental Health. The partnership, led by the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, concluded that many people do not seek help because they do not realize they have depression or are hesitant to make the first step into a mental health clinic.
The group’s solution is based on a model at the VNA’s Community Health Center in Craig, where doctors conduct a brief depression screening on every patient they see. If the screening indicates a patient may have depression or related problems such as sleep issues, anxiety, stress or substance abuse, they are immediately given the opportunity to chat with Hemeyer, a behavioral health specialist. Hemeyer connects them to appropriate community services that may include mental health support or other programs helping with pain and stress management and other factors contributing to depression.
Providers at several primary care clinics in Routt County are now conducting depression screenings on their patients. Hemeyer is available at the clinics or on-call to speak with patients. “We can now do more to help our patients than we could before,” said Brian Harrington, a doctor at Yampa Valley Medical Associates. “We are able to address the patient’s needs right when we are seeing them and formulate a plan for support and follow up.”
Hemeyer’s personal connection to patients allows her to introduce them to mental health professionals, helping remove the stigma and intimidation often attached to the mental health system. A trusting relationship encourages patients to contact Hemeyer for guidance and allows her to follow up on their progress. “If you’re not feeling well, it’s hard to ask for help,” Hemeyer said. “It’s a little easier to pick up the phone and call me.”
Prescott works directly with high-needs patients caught in an overwhelming cycle of costly doctor and emergency room visits. Many of her clients face financial hardships and a lack of basic necessities such as food and heat. They also may have mental health problems making it difficult for them to understand and trust programs available to help. Prescott meets with clients in their homes to troubleshoot their situations and link them to resources that can help them get healthier. She also connects them to programs to help with basic living costs so they are better able to focus on their health.
“[Patients] realize Leah and Ashley are pretty good people and mental health care isn’t such a mystery,” Gangel said. “It’s people helping people.”