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CLIMB@DU Grant Renewed, Aims to Integrate Physical and Mental Health Care

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Nika Anschuetz





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On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, Vicky Garza spends a lot of time on the phone.

Staring at a list of questions, Garza asks patients, “Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems?"

“Little interest or pleasure in doing things? Feeling down, depressed or hopeless?”

Garza continues, giving each response a point value.

The questions from the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 serve as a road map – a diagnostic tool for depression.

Garza is a first-generation college graduate. And after working in health care, a desire to be a decisionmaker sparked her return to the classroom.

“It’s usually people who don’t look like me making the decisions for people who look like me,” she says.

Garza is a part of the CLIMB@DU program, a collaborative effort between the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work and the Butler Institute for Families.

Through a Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training grant, which was renewed this year, CLIMB@DU strives to increase the workforce in integrated behavioral health services in rural, vulnerable and medically underserved communities across Colorado.

Integrated behavioral health pairs primary care and behavioral health clinicians – a one-stop shop for physical and mental health needs.

Most of the grant money goes directly to the students as stipends. The grant provides $10,000 toward living expenses. Any student in good standing and participating in the program gets the money.

It’s cash that lets Garza breathe during her work in Denver.

“It’s nice to have the little bit of help, which I completely parallel to the work I do with patients,” she says. “People can get there, but sometimes a little bit of extra help is what you need.”

Michele Hanna is the principal investigator for CLIMB@DU. Her focus is curriculum, while co-principal investigator Michael Talamantes provides behavioral health expertise.

Society is beginning to understand the need to address mental health – making it the perfect time for the grant, says Hanna, who has decades of experience in child welfare and academia.

Still, the stigma clouding mental health treatment persists. A lot of people will talk to their doctor about mental issues, Hanna says, but most won’t follow up on a referral to a mental health clinician.

“With integrated health, the referral’s right there. You’re going to the doctor’s office. It kind of helps deal with the stigma that you’re going to see a therapist,” she says.

Social workers make up the largest behavioral health workforce in the country, and the demand for them is likely to increase. By 2030, social work jobs are expected to be up 13%, more than the national average of all jobs, reports the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

“Social workers like to say we work across the micro, mezzo and macro perspectives. We’re not just working at one-person level, but also trying to change policies,” Talamantes says.

CLIMB@DU’s focus is to increase the integrated behavioral health workforce in Colorado, specifically rural and underserved communities. And it’s working. Today, 88% of the program’s alumni are in the field.

Harelda Anderson, a CLIMB@DU alumna, graduated in June 2018 through DU’s Durango program.  

She lives in Farmington, New Mexico –  the largest city in the Four Corners region.

Anderson now is a program coordinator for two research studies. One is connected to the National Institutes of Health for diabetes prevention, specifically among the Native American community.

Initially, Anderson wanted to move to a metro area. But a class at DU made her reevaluate her plan. While in South Africa, she realized she needed to work on the Navajo Nation.

“We see a lot of non-native people work here. They stay a couple of years, they pay off their student loans, and then they’re gone,” she says.

The lack of continued care spurred Anderson to come home. As a Navajo woman, she wanted to serve her community and try to connect the Navajo Nation with a higher level of care.

“If you’re looking at just the basic levels of social work, even food, water, electricity are non-existent for some Native American families,” Anderson says. “For them to apply to Medicaid or Medicare, they’d have to travel a lot.”

For Anderson and Garza, CLIMB@DU represents a chapter of their careers written in indelible ink. And at the end of the workday, these women– hundreds of miles apart – close their computers with a shared purpose: a desire to help their communities.