Boulder bipolar clinic to suspend ‘much-needed’ services as finances fall short

By LUCY HAGGARD |

November 24, 2019 

Bipolar disorder affects roughly 2.6% of the population. In Boulder County alone, that’s likely about 8,300 people.

Yet on average, about eight years pass from when someone first experiences symptoms and when they get treatment, likely due to stigmatization and lack of access to care. When Boulder’s Sutherland Bipolar Clinic suspends services in May 2020,

that access will decrease just a little more.

The clinic cited unsustainable funding as the reason for taking a break in providing care, though it’s not closing entirely. It’s the only clinic in the Front Range, and possibly throughout the state, that solely treats patients with bipolar disorder.

The Robert D. Sutherland Memorial Foundation raises approximately 80% of the clinic’s funds through donations. While the clinic isn’t free, it operates on a sliding scale to make care accessible for patients whose mental health often directly affects their

financial situation. The rest of the funding comes through small grants and in-kind donations, including its office at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Raimy Clinic.

Rachel Cruz, the foundation’s executive director, said that though the clinic’s budget — about $230,000 — is not a lot in comparison with other nonprofits, consistent funding has dwindled during its 17 years of existence.

“In an effort to still try and meet their needs for treatment and care, we continued to try and keep our center going with donor funding,” Cruz said. “Over the years, it’s become more and more challenging to ask for gifts in that manner. Mental illness is not one of those more prominent causes that people are willing to support.”

Not only does the clinic provide affordable, specialty help for those living with bipolar disorder; it also trains doctoral students to be the next generation of therapists. Natasha Hansen, a sixth-year doctoral student who has worked at the clinic for three years, said this trifecta of opportunities benefits everyone involved and has increased her passion for accessible mental health care.

“I feel like I’ve gotten an in-depth training in treating bipolar disorder, which really benefits from specialized treatment, but also a high-quality training for co-occurring conditions,” Hansen said. “It’s been incredible to work with individuals and help break

what can be a vicious cycle.”

A disorder that can be managed

Though bipolar disorder looks different for every individual, it often includes cycling between elevated and depressed episodes. In a manic episode, the high point of the cycle, someone can experience symptoms like racing thoughts, euphoria and irritability.

This can also manifest in a muted form, called hypomania.

The low point of the cycle is often a major depressive episode. Someone may not sleep well, feel emotionally depressed and even experience suicidality. Sometimes individuals will go through cycles of mixed episodes, with both mania and depression, or go directly from one episode to the next without any time in a “normal” mood. Occasionally bipolar disorder also includes psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions.

While patients are often prescribed medication, therapy can be more tricky than other mental illnesses. Hansen likens it to diabetes: both are chronic conditions, without a cure, that put people at higher risk for adverse health. They can also coincide with other conditions. Bipolar disorder often accompanies substance abuse, anxiety disorders or attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

Yet bipolar disorder, like diabetes, can be managed with a balance of psychological therapies and maintaining physical health. This degree of holistic care is often absent in clinics that are more generalized or when treating less severe mental illnesses.

“You can do everything right and someone can still flip into a severe episode, but at the same time these strategies make a big difference,” Hansen said.

Someone with bipolar disorder may experience signals — altered sleep schedule, for example — that could either trigger an episode or indicate that one is already on the way. The clinic’s patients learn how to recognize their own signals, consciously

intervene with behavioral strategies and manage their lifestyle to mitigate the frequency and intensity of episodes.

Hansen noted that patients also work on issues like interpersonal communication, navigating relationships and managing stress that any other person in therapy might address, too.

‘You’re not alone’

A large part of the clinic’s success comes through this all-encompassing approach. Often, this is through a community setting such as group therapy. Sam Shew, one of the foundation’s board members, said that the clinic has filled a much-needed niche.

“It’s nothing that anyone else is putting forth,” Shew said. “Being able to sit next to someone else who’s going through the same challenge that you are, you really feel that you’re not alone. It’s a much-needed service in the community, which is why it’s hard to see it closing.”

To be clear, the clinic isn’t closing outright. Right now, the clinic offers outpatient, individual, group and family therapy, as well as educational seminars for the general public. The foundation will continue to look for new ways toward financial sustainability,

which may include narrowing the clinic’s operations to the most impactful services.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but the interviews I’ve had over the past couple of weeks have pointed to the need for us to keep our services available,” Cruz said.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to figure out a way to do this.”

Challenges That No One Talks About

Beyond the common hurdles of bipolar—mood swings, medication side effects, irregular sleep—I’ve discovered some difficult, often-overlooked dilemmas. Here are my solutions to the top six. By Stephen Propst I’ve faced the more familiar facets of bipolar—unpredictable mood swings, medication side effects, irregular sleep patterns—for decades. However, I’ve discovered some difficult dilemmas that often go undiscussed. It’s important to acknowledge and address these issues, too. Here are six challenges worth confronting, perhaps with your doctor, in therapy, or at a support group; and some ways to proactively deal with these stumbling blocks. #1 Fleeing friends: Maintaining friendships can be difficult. Some friends back away out of fear or over frustration with past episodes. Others simply fall out of touch when we have extended periods of depression and isolation.  

I try to focus on forging friendships with people who naturally understand or are willing to learn. When I put myself in their shoes, exercise patience, and openly discuss the details of bipolar, they’re more apt to take my situation into account and less prone to abandon me.

#2 Suffering self-esteem

There’s an easy way to check your self-esteem. Have a trusted friend write half page about how he or she sees you; then, compare it to your own self-evaluation. I tried this years ago, and I was shocked at the differences.

Despite learning to see myself in a more realistic light over the course of 10 years of therapy, maintaining solid self-esteem remains challenging. Now, I try to give myself credit for even small accomplishments, and I’m more forgiving of myself when I make mistakes.

#3 Rough relationships

Sustaining an intimate relationship is another matter. It can be overwhelming for someone to routinely go along on our roller-coaster ride. It’s no wonder the divorce rate is so high!

It’s best to be honest and transparent with your significant other. And don’t forget that your partner has needs, too. If you’re still searching for your soul mate, stay optimistic. You never know when you’ll meet the right person.

#4 Lingering lethargy

My worst depression lasted nine months. I slept around 18 hours a day, yet I still lacked energy. These days I continue to occasionally face sometimes crippling depression and the accompanying fatigue.

You have to work hard to counteract the mental and physical drain that are symptomatic of bipolar. Having a reason to get out of bed in the morning, sticking to a routine, and watching what you eat are habits worth developing.

#5 Pessimistic perspective

I may write about the power of pursuing life from a positive perspective, but I never said doing so was easy. Because bipolar impacts us physically, psychologically, emotionally, and otherwise, it’s really hard to put on a happy face when times are tough.

That said, it’s worth trying my best to adopt a healthy attitude. For example, if I find myself wallowing and worrying in bed, I try to at least get up and go for a walk. Taking that simple step, and avoiding negative self-talk along the way, helps clear my head and change my mind-set for the better.

#6 Erratic employment

When you’re contending with unpredictable mood swings, work can be challenging. I have a friend with bipolar who lands jobs with ease. His record is 22 in one year! (Holding on to them is a different matter.)

For many of us, merely finding work that’s manageable, let alone meaningful, is difficult. I look for jobs that are less likely to jeopardize my well-being, versus those based purely on my education and experience. Being transparent with potential employers helps ensure that more reasonable, mutually accepted expectations are established.


Aside from known symptoms, living with bipolar comes with some problematic predicaments. It pays to practice simple strategies to help overcome these obstacles. Concentrating on concepts like being patient with friends, giving yourself a break, or just taking a walk can help improve everything from your relationships to your self-esteem to your overall well-being.

Printed as “Mind Over Mood: Difficult dilemmas,” Winter 2019

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen PropstStephen Propst, a former chair of DBSA, is a public speaker and a coach/consultant focusing on living successfully with conditions like bipolar. He can be reached at info@atlantamoodsupport.com.

Whats this all about?

This is the first post on my new blog. I hope you find it helpful. We are looking for it to be interactive with questions, comments and contribution from you – bipolar Patients, Families, Friends, Medical Practitioners of Bipolar patients. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

I have an illness, I am Bipolar. At 37 I was diagnosed but over these past 23 years I have come to understand so much. It didn’t take one time to fix my faults …. I call myself a ‘Knucklehead from Jersey’ perhaps because I try and try again thinking I am smart enough to figure out how to fix myself, by myself.

But ohhhh I was so wrong about that even recently, at 59 years old, I had my worst and longest depression. I lost hope that my life would improve. I lost everything.  My spirit was the first to go,  money and home followed. I tried to mitigate this by isolating from friends & families. I felt like a total failure.

Being a single mom I was grateful my daughters’ life was on a new road. She had graduated from College and was moving forward.   You would never know I was at the top of my class in college and I had a great career. Apparently that talent helped me bounce along through the ups and downs of my emotional cycles which started at 26 years old. Unfortunately I wasn’t diagnosed as bi-polar until 1996 but since then probably had 15 cycles of mania and depression. 

Oh yes, I was diligent with my medication, but medication alone cannot ‘cure’ bi-polar.  Actually Bipolar cannot be ‘cured’, only maintained.     Lessons learned, have to be re-learned again and again. I can say after 23 years, I actually can understand ( SOMETIMES) the signs and ask for medical adjustments needed from a good Psychiatrist.    

Having said that, I have many thoughts to share in the hopes that it will start a conversation with people like me, friends and family of bi-polar victims even medical professionals learning about it in order to help their patients.

It seems to take so long and a lot of work to understand this is a life long illness and the ways you can help yourself manage it. The fundamental facts I have experienced to help me manage the mania and depressions over these past decades are as follows:

  1. Sleep Sleep Sleep – we need to be well rested throughout the year.
  2. Find a Psychiatrist you trust.
  3. Listen to your loved ones who see a rapid change in behavior. Even if they don’t know what is going on, they will know it is something and it is our duty to immediately call our Doctor and speak to what was said. Make sure they understand you cannot ‘fix’ bi-polar but rather control and manage it throughout your life.
  4. Take your medications ritually as prescribed by your Doctor. I have not been good during the depression phase,  that is when I lose hope that things will work out.  Today I stand for asking my doctor for the same help when I tick up as when I tick down.   Isolation comforts depression, I mean who wants a Debbie downer in life.  During this phase my M-O was to hibernate and avoid social settings.  I hoped that in 3 – 6 months ‘this too shall pass’.  
  5. Don’t be hard on yourself. The only difference between genetic physical and mental illnesses is the location of that illness.
  6. This is NOT a disease, this is a condition.
  7. Give yourself a break, it can be crushing to struggle with being bi-polar but I can tell you, at 62 I hope I am on the right track and will try to continue to ‘practice what I preach for the rest of my life.

Bipolar Patients, Families, Friends, Medical Practitioners please write your thoughts, share your stories and lets get this conversation going. My hope for this blog is that it will enable all to ask questions, share experiences so that we can all grow and succeed in our lives. Hope to hear from you. I invite you all to share stories and helpful links to further expand these conversations.

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