‘Raw’ from tragedies, governor calls for mental health overhaul

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Gov. John Hickenlooper is calling for an $18.5 million increase in state funding to strengthen mental health in Colorado with instant mental health updates available for gun background checks, a statewide 24-hour phone crisis hotline, walk-in mental health centers and a new streamlined commitment law to make Colorado communities safer.

Acknowledging that emotions are still raw over the mass killing Friday of 20 first-graders and six educators in Connecticut, Hickenlooper said the mental health overhaul which will require legislative approval has been in the works since two days after the Aurora theater shootings last July.

The common element of so many of these mass homicides seems to be a level of mental illness of the shooters, Hickenlooper said. What happened in Newtown is beyond comprehension. After Aurora, I thought wed never see something that would cause such deep despair.

While there may be some disagreement about how gun control can help prevent mass killings, Hickenlooper said theres clear agreement that better access to mental health will help keep patients, families and communities safer.

Mental health seems like the one point thats not controversial, Hickenlooper said. It connects to almost all of these terrible tragedies.

Among the changes, the overhaul would:

  • Create a new, more potent civil commitment law.
  • Authorize Colorados courts to transfer mental health commitment records directly to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in real-time so the information is available for firearm purchase background checks conducted through Colorados InstaCheck system. Currently the court system transfers data via CD just twice a year.
  • Establish a new $10.3 million crisis response system including a statewide mental health crisis hotline and five new 24/7 walk-in crisis stabilization centers for urgent mental health care.
  • Provide mental health care to jailed inmates in the Denver area through a 20-bed, $2 million center.
  • Support people leaving mental health institutions through a $4.8 million program to establish better community care. (To view full details of all the proposed changes, click here.)

Flanking the governor as he made his announcement at the Capitol on Tuesday were mental health advocates and leaders from state agencies ranging from public health to corrections and human services.

They included former Colorado First Lady Jeannie Ritter, who has been fighting for better programs for the mentally ill for several years. While Hickenloopers overhaul only begins to restore dollars lost from mental health care during the recession, Ritter said the improvements offer a promising start.

This is an issue whose time has come. It has percolated to the top, Ritter said, noting that the horrors of both the Aurora and Newtown tragedies have focused unprecedented attention on mental health needs. This is a start. People are sitting up and listening.

Ritter said shes pleased that Hickenloopers plan focuses on prevention.

Its readiness. Its resources. We dont want to continue on a path thats totally crisis-driven.

Ritter said insurance companies will need to do a much better job of reimbursing people for mental health care and hospitals will have to add back beds for mental health care even though those beds arent nearly as profitable as beds for cardiac care, for instance.

I really believe this is the place to house these conversations and to get insurance companies to step up, Ritter said. Lets help craft something. We know earlier interventions pay.

Hickenlooper also said the pendulum may have swung too far after the movement in the 1970s and 1980s to deinstitutionalize hundreds of thousands of patients previously cared for in mental hospitals. The recent trend across the country to eliminate psych beds in hospitals is a problem, Hickenlooper said.

Hospitals have shed entire wards. This is a trend weve seen all over the country and its been going on for decades, Hickenlooper said.

While its less expensive and perhaps more humane to help many of the mentally ill in the community instead of in hospital wards, Hickenlooper said its a legitimate question: Has the pendulum swung too far?

While the governor acknowledged that we will never have a failsafe system for preventing mass killings, Colorado can do far better when it comes to mental health care.

Whether or not you or someone in your family is in crisisthis plan is going to help deliver support services to people sooner and thereby be focused on prevention, reducing the probability of bad things happening to good people, Hickenlooper said.