Local voters could hold key in Colorado’s mental health crisis

December 14, 2019
Originally appeared in The Gazette
By: Lance Benzel

LARIMER COUNTY • Standing in tall grass off a country road, Commissioner Steve Johnson shows where voters have cleared the way for a $25 million mental health center, billed by its supporters as a regional leap in the statewide battle for improved care.

Three years ago, the reforms nearly died in a vacant lot, cut down at the polls in this northern Colorado county of 350,000 residents.

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Commissioner Steve Johnson stands at the site in October where voters have cleared the way for a $25 million mental health center in Fort Collins, 2019The 40 acre site is located south of the Larimer County landfill. Voters approved the comprehensive campus last November.

Johnson, a Republican, was among the supporters who rallied to revive the plan. With help from strange bedfellows  and scores of presentations and public meetings  they marshaled a revised initiative onto ballots last November, turning heads across Colorado in the process.

This time, it passed with 61% of the vote, affirming the power of relentless voter outreach backed by strong bipartisan support, Johnson said.

“Mental illness is not a partisan issue,” he said. “You have to have a good solution and you have to have good public awareness campaign. If you have those two things, there’s a good chance you’ll be successful.”

The turnaround  which has some in Larimer County promising a new benchmark for care  comes as communities across the state are grappling with how to pay for costly mental health care upgrades, and increasingly finding luck at the polls. In the 11 jurisdictions that put mental health initiatives on ballots last year, all but one passed, illuminating a potential path in reversing Colorado’s dismal record on mental health.

“We are wasting lives and money doing things the way we are currently doing them,” said Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, who cheered the initiatives’ passage.