Legislators, Community Members Urge Transformation of Colorado’s Mental Health System

August 4, 2021

By: Mental Health Colorado

This article was found in the Pagosa Daily Post

Legislators and community members will convene the Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force in August to decide how to spend $450 million dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dedicated to behavioral health. According to Mental Health Colorado, this is a once in a generation opportunity to invest in course corrections, which will point Coloradans toward better health outcomes and more sensible use of health and justice resources.

Children’s Hospital Colorado recently declared a state of emergency for youth mental health. Health challenges facing youth are beyond crisis levels, and Children’s Hospital has seen a 90% increase in demand for behavioral health treatment in the past two years. Treatment options for Colorado’s children must be a priority for the Behavioral Health Transformation Task Force. Mental Health Colorado is also urging legislators to ensure access to care is available to people across the state, not just for those who live along the I-25 corridor.

“The state has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to make transformational change to the way we recognize and respond to people’s unmet health needs,” said Vincent Atchity, Mental Health Colorado President & CEO, who will serve as chair of the task force subpanel. “It is time for us to make a bold move to address homelessness, promote substance use harm reduction and recovery, and end the use of jails and prisons as our de facto psychiatric facilities. We have been systematically neglecting and criminalizing Coloradans with health needs, and that’s just not the kind of people we should want to be. We need to be systematic about taking better care of one another. We will all feel better and our economy will get stronger and stronger.”

Among other critical shortcomings in the system, the state is lacking adequate civil inpatient and residential beds, as well as recovery services. Mental Health Colorado is proposing that the state allocate at least $165 million to increase the availability of beds and recovery supports to meet Coloradans’ mental health and substance use care needs.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, states should have 40 to 60 inpatient beds per 100,000 people. For Colorado to meet those standards, with the population at 5.7 million, the state would need 2,850 beds. Colorado currently has 94 civil beds at the Mental Health Institute at Ft. Logan (CMHIFL) and has an average civil bed population of 78 at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP)… falling short by over 2,600 beds.

“So, if the state needs over 2,600 beds, where do you think people go when they are ill enough to require inpatient or residential care? Enter your local sheriff,” said Atchity. “People who need inpatient and residential levels of care are living in parks and under bridges and are being warehoused in our county jails at great cost to taxpayers because the state lacks the commitment and infrastructure needed to care for Coloradans. We need care, not cuffs.”

Mental Health Colorado says the state should focus on ensuring that high-quality mental health and substance use services are available across the state; that crisis interventions do not lead to arrests, injuries, and fatalities; and that placement in residential treatment, or live-in facilities, is available for adults and youth who need them so that children are not sent out-of-state to receive care and adults do not unnecessarily end up homeless or in jail or prison because our health care system is inadequate. Mental Health Colorado also says that the state needs to practice harm reduction as well as ensure recovery services are available in the community to keep people well once they recover. Harm reduction initiatives, sober living homes, and peer respite homes should be fully supported by the state instead of being afterthoughts in the continuum of care.

“Access to behavioral health services is so important for all Coloradans, but in particular, rural Colorado,” said Senator Cleave Simpson of Alamosa. “Incident rates for suicide, overdoses, and other behavioral health issues are incrementally higher in rural Colorado as compared to our urban counterparts. It’s vitally important we all take the time and effort to work towards solutions that include inpatient care for all Coloradans.”

The task force will begin its work in August and must issue a report with recommendations to the General Assembly and the Governor on policies to create transformational change in behavioral health using money the state receives from the federal coronavirus state fiscal recovery fund. The sub-panel members include Vincent Atchity of Mental Health Colorado as task force chair, representing a statewide organization that develops and advocates for mental health policy; representatives of community-based organizations representing communities that experience disproportionate health impacts; and others representing patients, caregivers, and local government.