S+B Q+A with Sharon Raggio of Mind Springs Health


Interviewed by Cat Mayer, S+B Publisher

Sharon Raggio is a force when it comes to mental health care in Colorado. She is president and CEO of Mind Springs Health (formerly known as Colorado West). Under her leadership, Mind Springs Health is constructing the new West Springs Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction that will serve all western Colorado communities.

Photo by Cat Mayer

Photo by Cat Mayer

S+B: Hello Sharon, thanks for taking the time to talk to S+B about Mind Springs Health and its new hospital on the Western Slope, and also the state of mental health care in Colorado.

SR: Happy to do so!

S+B: Grand Junction is very fortunate to be the home of West Springs Hospital. Why is it important that Mind Springs Health have this facility in western Colorado?

SR: It is essential that a psychiatric hospital be located on the Western Slope, and our board has been planning for the last five years to expand the current 32-bed psychiatric hospital to 64 beds. Our board considers this essential. First, we operate the only psychiatric hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City. This means without this availability, people would be required to travel to Denver or Salt Lake in the event of a psychiatric hospitalization themselves or of their loved one. That is a significant challenge when a psychiatric crisis occurs. Secondly, our psychiatric hospitals offer hope and healing to people in the midst of a psychiatric crisis. People can and do recover from mental illness. Lastly, our psychiatric hospital saves lives. People are admitted to a psychiatric hospital when, due to a major mental illness, there is imminent risk of suicide, homicide, or a person is gravely disabled. For example, someone who hears voices and is not eating or bathing.

S+B: What are the economic benefits to the community of having the new hospital in Grand Junction?

SR: According to Grand Junction Economic Partnership, West Springs Hospital is expected to bring 125 new jobs to Mesa County and contribute more than $730,000 in tax revenue over the next five years. The total economic impact for Mesa County is expected to be more than $63 million.

S+B: The new West Springs Hospital has been funded by public investments from Eagle, Garfield, Pitkin and Routt Counties — all western Colorado counties — as well as from gifts from private donors throughout the Western Slope. Why is the Hospital being well-supported by the western Colorado community?

SR: The new hospital is a $34 million capital project, and our goal is to raise an additional $17.75 million. As of July 2018, we are just north of raising $17 million, and have a matching grant to secure the remaining $750,000 before the end of the calendar year.

Routt, Eagle, Garfield, and Pitkin Counties each made an investment in the new hospital. So did many other Western Slope acute-care hospitals. St. Mary’s Hospital here in Grand Junction invested $2.5 million. Additionally, we are fortunate to have investments from many private family foundations, large foundations on the Front Range, as well as many private citizens. In fact, about 60 percent of our staff have donated to this project. I think people see the need, want services locally, and understand that our psychiatric hospital saves lives. It has been humbling to experience the support of this project all across the Western Slope!

S+B: Recent statistics say 1 in 4 Americans will experience mental illness — ranging from mild impairment to serious illness that substantially interferes with daily life or causes disability. Being as how it is that common, why does stigma around mental health care continue?

SR: The good news is that stigma is decreasing! Yes, it still exists. However, for every person who shares their personal story of recovery, stigma bursts. At Mind Springs Health and West Springs Hospital, we hire people with a mental illness who are in recovery and employ them to assist others who are just starting on their journey of recovery from a mental illness. We call them our “Peer Staff.” Peers are able to reach people in ways a professional, who may not have that lived experience, sometimes cannot.

S+B: Mental health care continues to face challenges that keep those in need from accessing care. Meanwhile, you have been lauded for improving treatment effectiveness and completion rates since taking on your leadership role at Mind Springs Health. In what ways have you eased those barriers to better reach and treat people in need of mental health care?

SR: There are multiple efforts ongoing to erase barriers and reach more people, the biggest effort being partnership. We are so pleased to be partners with others in the health care community — acute care hospitals and primary care providers. Primary care providers are moving towards integrated care which offers a behavioral health therapist on-site within the primary care office. A person may present for a stomachache, and also have co-occurring anxiety that contributes to that pain. Treating both at the same time is much more effective than treating them separately, and I applaud our primary care friends for their efforts and partnership.

Additionally, it is important to “go where people are.” We go to jails, emergency rooms, libraries, homeless shelters, the Department of Human Services, and schools. This way, we can reach more people and improve access. Recently, The Daily Sentinel highlighted a new joint partnership with the Grand Junction Police Department and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office. Mind Springs Health employs therapists who ride along with law enforcement in an effort to reach people in need earlier, and to assist law enforcement in their work in the community. It really is an exciting time, and partnership is the name of the game!

S+B: Nationally, and in rural counties in particular, we have seen an uptick in rates of attempted suicide and deaths by suicide. What do you think accounts for this, and how can it be addressed?

SR: If I could answer the question of why a person turns to suicide, or why we see an uptick in rates of suicide, I would blast that answer everywhere. The facts are that suicide is very unique to each person, and the answers are complicated. What we do know is that middle-age men are still the nation’s top demographic for suicide. Middle-age women are increasing, and adolescent suicide is also increasing. Specific to adolescents, there is a correlation between the increasing suicide rates and screen time. I always encourage people to be aware of the amount of screen time they experience, and for families to consider developing a screen time family agreement that allows for timeouts from constant screen time use.

I also believe that ways to prevent suicide, from a population view, include learning resiliency skills, and making deeper connections with other people. Hearing from people who have thought about suicide and found the courage to live also goes far in preventing suicide. Suicide is a permanent solution to problems that typically are temporary, and it does take courage to live though dark times. The stigma of even contemplating suicide prevents people who have lived through it from telling their story and giving hope to others. These people are heroes and should be celebrated.

S+B: We see the economy along the Front Range continue to grow exponentially. As the economy begins an upward trajectory here on the Western Slope, do you see any corresponding improvement in mental health?

SR: There is a proven connection between poverty and one’s mental health. Being poor places much stress on those living in poverty. That said, serious mental illness crosses all genders and socio-economic boundaries. Typically, some 7-9 percent of any population may have a serious mental illness, and our Surgeon General reports that 25 percent of all people will experience a psychiatric crisis in their lifetime. So, yes, an improving economy helps, but it’s important to remember that mental illness crosses all socio-economic boundaries.

S+B: You originally came from the Front Range, specifically working in mental health care in Colorado Springs. How does health care in western Colorado differ?

SR: What I love about working in western Colorado, and in our more rural communities, is partnership! It is so much easier to develop mission reach through partnership as opposed to doing it alone. Mesa County and the Western Slope hold the partnership mindset, and we all work hard together to assure the right thing is done for people in need.

S+B: So, how did you come to Colorado?

SR: I came to Colorado as the result of a military move to Fort Carson, and I came to the Western Slope in 2008 to take the position of CEO at what was then called Colorado West Regional Mental Health. Some of your readers may recall the organization was on the verge of bankruptcy and closure at that time. Through the help of many partners, we were able to resolve the immediate challenges and grow services.

S+B: In 2016, Mind Springs Health did not pursue a $5 million grant from the state’s Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) because it would have exceeded Mesa County’s tax limit, forcing the county to refund that amount to taxpayers, even though the money would have gone to the new West Springs Hospital. On the upcoming November ballot, the Mesa County Commission will ask voters to exempt state grants from Mesa County’s TABOR cap, without increasing any taxes. How would this new legislation impact non-profit organizations like Mind Springs Health?

SR: Mind Springs Health was in conversation with Mesa County about collaborating together to receive a grant from DOLA to aid in the construction of the new West Springs Hospital. The county was unable to accept DOLA funding and collaborate with us because of TABOR restrictions. The county, as I understand it, is asking voters on the November ballot to exempt these types of grants from TABOR, allowing this type of collaboration in the future.

Should Mesa County voters pass that initiative, DOLA will still not allow funding for a project already under construction — tonly allowing for new projects. So, while we could not collaborate with DOLA funding being awarded to Mesa County for the current effort, there are other efforts to further expand services that we, or other not-for-profit entities, could be in conversation with Mesa County. For example, our West Springs Hospital plans call for a Phase II addition of a future 16-bed unit. That new project could potentially be eligible for DOLA funds through a collaboration with Mesa County.

S+B: What do you love about living on the Western Slope?

SR: I grew up in California, and as a family we went to the beach and the mountains often. The family argument was, “If you had to choose where to live, would it be mountains or beach?” Today, I am blessed to live in the mountains and vacation at the beach. I love taking hikes with my two standard poodles, love to camp, and love the sunny days and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets we are privileged to experience here in western Colorado. There is nothing like a night sky in the mountains! The natural healing powers of being in nature are abundant here.

S+B: Favorite local product?

SR: Palisade Peaches! Yummy!

S+B: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

SR: My pleasure!

Quick Facts about Mind Springs Health

• Mind Springs Health is the Western Slope’s largest provider of counseling and therapy for mental wellness, and also assists individuals and families dealing with and recovering from addiction.

• Mind Springs Health treats people with depression, anxiety, stress, trauma, PTSD, ADHD, substance abuse and addiction, and serious ongoing mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and mood disorders, and thoughts of suicide.

• Mind Springs Health serves a 23,000-square-mile area in Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Mesa, Moffat, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit counties.

• Mind Springs Health offers 24/7/365 crisis response services, 13 offices for outpatient treatment, and the 32-bed West Springs Hospital, the only psychiatric hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City.

For more information, visit MindSpringsHealth.org or WestSpringsHospital.org.

Cat MayerS+B Interview