Research: Colorado has 71 census tracts where high rates of mental health issues and high housing costs overlap

While the study does not draw direct causal links, a new map showing the overlap may help better direct services.

Colorado researchers for the first time have mapped the overlap between housing-insecurity and mental health needs, creating a tool that could better guide help to vulnerable areas. (Photo by Hunter McGinnis, via Flickr: Creative Commons)
Colorado researchers for the first time have mapped the overlap between housing insecurity and mental health needs, creating a tool that could better guide help to vulnerable areas. (Photo by Hunter McGinnis, via Flickr: Creative Commons)

Researchers seeking to better understand where the lack of affordable housing intersects with mental health needs in Colorado have for the first time mapped data for both, zeroing in on the areas where needs overlap. 

Researchers found 71 census tracts in the state where a high rate of housing insecurity and mental health needs come together, according to a report released last week. 

Pueblo County topped the list, followed by Adams and Denver counties. 

Jieun Lee, one of the researchers and an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado, pointed out that while struggling to pay the rent may contribute to poor mental health, for now the research does not seek to draw a connection between the two, only to learn where in the state the needs overlap. 

“If we can help populations who are stressed with the government [services], with housing, that might alleviate some of the areas that are suffering from high mental health issues,” Lee said.

The interactive map will be used by public officials and lawmakers to more efficiently target services and funding, according researcher Ivan Ramírez, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver. 

The report culled data from 2012-2017 from public agencies, including the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Census Bureau, and looked at the rate of rent-burdened households — where the family spent 30% or more of its income on rent — and the prevalence of mental health issues, which included self-reported mental-health distress, drug-related deaths, and deaths from suicide. 

Half of all Colorado households were considered rent-burdened in 2018, according to the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. In the 71 tracts that share was even higher, researchers said.

In addition, the study also looked at the availability of mental health treatment within a 30-minute drive of the overlapping areas. Using all the factors combined, the researchers came up with a list ranking by greatest need or priority for public attention. 

Researchers prioritized the most vulnerable areas in Colorado for mental-health and housing-insecurity. (Graphic courtesy of University of Denver Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab)
Researchers prioritized the most vulnerable areas in Colorado for mental health needs and housing insecurity. (Graphic courtesy of University of Denver Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab)

The poverty rate in the vulnerable areas is nearly twice as high as the rest of Colorado — 24% compared to about 13% — according to data from the researchers. And, the median annual income is also about $43,000 less than the rest of the state, at $21,933. The drug-related death rate is nearly three times higher, the suicide rate is 60% higher and mental health problems are about 13% higher than average. The researchers didn’t break down every racial group in the tracts, but they found that the vulnerable areas had a higher population of minorities  — 45% — than the rest of the state — 30%. 

In the Pueblo metropolitan region, there were nine priority census tracts identified by the report, and three where the drug-related death rate was five to eight times higher than the state average. 

“The overlap indicates, or suggests, that these are potential areas where there’s this added burden, or double burden, of housing affordability and mental health related issues,” Ramírez said. 

The study conclusions noted that its preliminary findings appear to support a 2019 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that found households that struggle with greater housing cost burdens also see poorer health outcomes.

The 71 census tracts make up 6% of the total number of Colorado’s census tracts and are mostly located in the metropolitan areas of Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins, Pueblo and Grand Junction. There are about 58,000 households in the tracts, not all of them are experiencing housing insecurity or mental health problems, Ramírez said, but they have significantly high rates of both. 

Screenshot of the interactive map of overlap areas of housing-insecurity and mental health issues created by researchers for the University of Denver’s Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab.

Ramírez said he would like to see mortgage-burdened households mapped in the future, to include a more rural-focused look at housing insecurity. 

The researchers also mapped housing insecurity and mental health issues separately. They found that 16% of census tracts in Colorado have a significantly more rent-burdened households than the state average and 35% of the tracts have a significantly higher rate of one or more of the mental health issues they included. 

Ramírez and Lee conducted the research for the University of Denver’s Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab, which also funded the project. 

Elysia Clemens, deputy director of the DU lab, said that the project stemmed from conversations between the lab and officials in the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Research into the overlap between physical health problems and housing insecurity had been done, but there was a need for tools to address mental health and housing together, Clemens said. 

Overlaying the two issues on a map and identifying where the most need exists helps policy makers come together and locate “the best opportunity to plug in and provide additional support,” she said. 

Alison George, director of the Colorado Division of Housing, said the division has begun sharing the project results with local housing and mental health services in the most vulnerable areas.

Lee said with additional funding, she and Ramírez would like to continue their research by interviewing families in the identified census tracts to better understand their needs and how to address them. 

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