Colorado jails won’t be used to ‘hold’ mentally ill

Colorado county jails will no longer be used to temporarily detain people suffering from mental illness or episodes, according to a new law signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“It’s an area where Colorado is leading the way,” he said. “Being in jail is probably the worst way to treat someone suffering from a brain disease.”

Senate Bill 207 also authorizes $7 million from legalized marijuana revenues to create mental-health response teams to help law enforcement deal with mentally ill people — particularly in rural areas.

Former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who now heads the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado, explained the law Friday when he spoke to the Pueblo Latino Chamber of Commerce.

Romanoff said Pueblo County jail hasn’t been accepting people on 24-hour mental health “holds” for several years, but said the issue was more common in other counties.

He said research has shown that about 65 percent of county jail prisoners have some mental health issues, often combined with drug or alcohol abuse.

“We need about 2,500 beds in the state to deal with people suffering from mental illness, and we’re only about half the way there,” he said.

Romanoff told the luncheon audience his interest in mental illness is very personal: His 35-year-old cousin Melissa killed herself, shocking him and all her family because she’d hidden her depression and mental illness so well.

“Even in her suicide note, she asked us to tell people she died in a car accident because of the stigma we attach to mental illness,” he said.

Romanoff said research indicates about 8 percent of high school students have attempted suicide, and symptoms of serious mental illness begin around age 14.

“Which is why we need to work harder at getting help to young people and recognizing those symptoms early,” he said.

A 24-hour help line is available at Colorado Crisis Services: 844-493-8255.

“I wish that number was as familiar to people as 911, because we all know people who are suffering from some degree of mental illness,” he said.


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