Bill expands mental health support for rural communities

KUSA – Mental illness is not a crime, yet Coloradans who suffer a mental health crisis can still find themselves in a jail cell for up to 24 hours.

A bill introduced into the Colorado Senate last week would do away with the practice that happens mostly in rural counties along the western slope that have limited access to mental health resources.

“We’re only one of six states left in the country that allows this practice,” Moe Keller said, vice president of public policy for Mental Health Colorado.

Keller sat on a panel made up of legislators, county sheriffs and mental health experts tasked last summer with finding therapeutic solutions to the practice of housing people on mental health holds in jail cells.

“We would not tolerate this [practice] with someone who had a seizure,” Keller explained. “We’d probably order a helicopter to transport that person to the nearest hospital, and yet a person facing a mental health crisis – we take them to jail. [It’s] outrageous and the practice has to stop.”

Governor John Hickenlooper created the task force after he vetoed a bill last June that would have extended the length of time someone on a 72-hour mental health hold could be held in jail. Under current law, someone on a 72-hour mental health hold can be detained in jail for up to 24 hours. That person must then be taken to a mental health facility.

In some rural counties, the task of transporting the patient falls on local sheriff’s deputies who, in some cases, must drive hundreds of miles to the nearest facility.

“They may be on the road for eight or nine hours,” Chris Johnson said, executive director for County Sheriffs of Colorado.

Johnson said the patients are often transported in patrol cars.

“It’s not good for the patient, it’s not good for the sheriff’s office who has to do the transport,” Johnson said. “It leaves officers alone or shorthanded should something happen in their own communities, so it just is not a good process all the way around.”

Johnson, a former sheriff for Otero County, sat on Hickenlooper’s task force along with Keller. He said the panel met about every two weeks and worked to come up with a set of recommendations.

The result is a $9 million plan that would boost the state’s crisis-response system so local communities could better take care of people who suffer a mental health crisis.

Under the plan, walk-in centers across the state would have to be adequately prepared and staff to handle mental health patients.

Mobile response teams would need to be able to respond faster – within two hours either face-to-face or using “telehealth operations.”

“Having local community response will then negate the need for a sheriff to go four hours in one way to get some services,” Keller explained.

The bill would prohibit someone on a 72-hour mental health hold from being detained in jail for any reason. That piece of the bill would take effect May 1, 2018.

Keller said the $9 million plan won’t be enough for the entire state, but it would be able to help a couple rural communities to start a pilot program.

“Then we’ll start seeing if it’s a program that can be replicated in other parts of the state,” she said.

The bill heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 22.

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