Providing behavioral health care in rural Colorado

Aug. 22, 2023
A photo of Alan Katzen
Alan Katzen, a social worker at UCHealth Pikes Peak Regional Hospital, is called upon to provide mental health care in the hospital’s emergency department. Photo: UCHealth.

A social worker for more than 30 years, Alan Katzen knows there is no such thing as health without mental health.

Katzen has spent a career doing mental health assessments and helping people recover from mental health challenges, whether it is depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or addictions. He’s now on board at UCHealth’s Pikes Peak Regional Hospital as a behavioral health clinician, the first to hold the vital role at the Woodland Park hospital.

Katzen’s main responsibilities include responding to the emergency room at the hospital when a patient is having difficulty with mental health. He also helps patients who have been admitted to the acute care medical unit, and he also sees patients in the infusion clinic and those who are receiving physical, occupational or speech therapy.

Accessing behavioral health in Woodland Park

Outside the hospital, Katzen is active in the Woodland Park community. He’s part of the Teller County Mental Health Alliance, serving on the Advisory Board and the Lethal Means Committee and is available to speak before civic groups such as the Rotary Club. On Fridays through October, he meets with people at the Woodland Park farmers market to help them find health care or resources.

Katzen, who spent much of his career in behavioral health in Dallas/Fort Worth, moved to Teller County three years ago. He first worked with El Paso County’s co-responder program, riding with sheriff’s deputies to 911 calls involving individuals in crisis.

“This is definitely more of a rural community,’’ Katzen said. “Many people move up here to be off the grid or to enjoy the rural lifestyle. So there are fewer (mental health) resources. But when I first moved here, the consensus was ‘there are no resources,’ but that isn’t true. There actually are a lot. … We don’t have inpatient mental health care in Teller County, so people go to the Springs when they need inpatient care. But we do have all kinds of outpatient care and other community resources.’’

Alan Katzen, a social worker who provides behavioral health care at UCHealth Pikes Peak Regional Hospital, talks to a woman at the Woodland Park Farmers Market. Photo: UCHealth.
Alan Katzen, a social worker at UCHealth Pikes Peak Regional Hospital, talks to a woman at the Woodland Park Farmers Market. Photo: UCHealth.

Katzen strongly believes in helping people recognize when they, or someone they love, may need care for their mental health. He promotes a new federal help line – 988 — that people can access to learn about how to get help.

Even in mountain communities filled with rugged individualists, there is a concerted effort to reduce the stigma that has long accompanied mental health, no matter the community. Like many people nationwide, even those who relish their privacy felt the ill effect of isolation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The conversation about mental health has expanded, to include the need for prevention and early intervention, as well as including recovery as part of the conversation,’’ Katzen said.

Helping people recognize risk and preventive factors is key to the discussion.

“Helping people shore up their preventive factors is all about encouraging people to have social connections, whether it is more with community organizations, through volunteering or any kind of activity where they are interacting with another person,’’ Katzen said.

“Understanding risk factors such as a family history of mental illness or suicide; physical, emotional or sexual trauma; adverse childhood events – all of these kinds of things are risk factors. It can include growing up in poverty or isolation.

“On the other hand, protective factors include connection through faith communities, having a culture that is willing to engage for mental health help. Even simple, obvious things – having a home, having transportation, all those things are protective factors as well,’’ Katzen said.

Grant, UCHealth help to expand mental health resources in Woodland Park

Katzen’s role at PPRH is possible because of a Hospital Transformation Program grant and UCHealth.

At PPRH, a recovery coach from Serenity Recovery Connections is available every other Tuesday. For one hour on those Tuesdays, the recovery coach hosts a well-attended support group at the Woodland Park Public Library.

“It is not a 12-step or an AA-style group. It is a general recovery group. Everyone is there on a voluntary basis, and they’re just there to support one another in their recovery. It could be alcohol. It could be other substances. It could be a gambling or a sex addiction,’’ Katzen said.

Alan Katzen provides behavioral health outreach at the Woodland Park Farmers Market.
Alan Katzen, a social worker, and a co-worker provide behavioral health outreach on Friday mornings at the Woodland Park Farmers Market. Photo: UCHealth.

Katzen also teaches a class called Mental Health First Aid to help people recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness, learn how to approach a person who may be in crisis and have a meaningful conversation with them, and refer them to community resources. The class includes several structured activities where participants practice the skills being taught.

Among resources available nationally is a national mental health crisis line – 988.

“You don’t actually have to be in crisis where you think someone is about to kill themselves or attempt to kill themselves,’’ Katzen said. “You can call for yourself if you just need a pep talk or you can call if there is someone who you are concerned about. And it is 988 and there will be a person on their end to walk you through what is next.

“Keep in mind that the 988 number does not yet have geo-location,’’ Katzen said. “So, whatever the area code is for your phone number, that is the state you will be directed to. For example, even if you are in Colorado, and you have a phone number that begins with 817 – a Fort Worth area code – then you would be directed to someone in Texas. So they might not have the current local resources.

“Instead of 911, it is 988 – that’s the new crisis number. You can call that number if you are experiencing difficulty, or you can call to get help and resources for someone else who is having trouble.’’

Katzen said he is grateful to work as a behavioral health clinician in Teller County, where he lives.

“I’ve been very well received here both in the hospital and in the community. And I feel like I was set up to succeed. I have the resources and the time to do all of the things that I am able to try to help,’’ Katzen said.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.