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No Easy Solutions For Colorado's Behavioral Health Situation


Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has called for the expansion of mental health services in the wake of last year’s mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown, Conn.

His $18.5 million proposal would, among other things, create a statewide mental health hotline and add walk-in crisis centers, as well as shore up support at the state’s mental hospitals.

Mental health centers in many Colorado communitieshave seen a large increase in the number of people seeking services over the last few years.

Many in the health community – including Larry Pottorf, Executive Director at North Range Behavioral Health – say Hickenlooper's proposals would be a step in the right direction. But he adds that improving behavioral health care is not entirely about the money.

"It's funding, [but also] it's awareness, really educating the community, and families, that it's not something to be afraid of; that there is help, there is treatment," Pottorf says. "Just as if a person is showing signs of flu or diabetes. It's the same with mental health."

Pottorf says the governor's proposals have focused needed attention on behavioral health, which he sees as a good thing. In addition to increased funding for care, he hopes the attention will help shift the way people view mental health issues- not as weakness or a person's lack of character, but as a brain disease that is as deserving of support and treatment as physical ailments.

"Bottom line -- is that people with mental health disorders deserve the same type of health coverage as a person with a physical illness."

Interview highlights:

On helping the community recognize symptoms of mental health issues...

"One of the things that's really sweeping the country which is very helpful in this regard is a program called mental health first aid. At North Range Behavioral Health we do offer this educational program to the community, which really - just as the name suggests - is just like first aid, only it focuses on mental health. It's open to anybody. We offer the course a number of times throughout the year... and it's a very effective way to increase awareness of what mental illness really is."

On parity in behavioral health treatment...

"Some years ago, Patrick Kennedy sponsored a bill to bring about parity for mental health disorders, which is something that was very much needed; we applauded it and moved ahead, because a person who has a mental illness deserves to get the same type of coverage and health benefit as someone who's going in for a physical ailment. So the law was good, it brought about parity. The problem with it is that it wasn't regulated or enforced at the level that really brings true parity.

So work is occurring now to make sure that strength can be added to that. Bottom line is that people with mental health disorders deserve the same type of health coverage as a person with a physical illness."

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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