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Charting The Course For Colorado Mental Health At The Capitol

Senator Linda Newell speaks at the state capitol, date unknown.

Mental health became a top priority for some Colorado lawmakers following the 2012 Aurora theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.The state made a large investment in mental health services during the 2013 session, but there have been setbacks since.

In the 2014 session, the topic didn’t gain as much traction.

According to the most recent national data, Colorado has the eighth highest suicide rate in the country. Public health officials are still trying to figure out why. Around the state capitol, it’s hoped that a new commission charged with creating ways to prevent suicide and keep people safe can help.

“We don’t have anybody to be the glue,” said senator Linda Newell (D-Littleton). “They’re all doing their individual things, which are phenomenal things, but they aren’t well enough done if we still have the highest suicide rate we’ve had in history.”

Newell sponsored the bill [SB 14-88 .pdf] creating the suicide prevention commission. It will include people from several different sectors, including nonprofits to businesses and mental health professionals.

Colorado created an office of suicide prevention more than a decade ago. Jarrod Hindman directs the office and will serve on the new commission.

“So much of the work is about education and awareness, and that’s hard to do when we don’t have enough people sharing the information,” Hindman said.

A big gap has been bringing new people to the table he said, people who haven’t directly been impacted by suicide.

“I think it’s considered a private personal issue. And so we don’t like to meddle in other people’s business or that’s a tragedy that happened to someone else and I don’t want to get involved,” said Hindman.

Some lawmakers – like Republican Representative Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs – questioned just how useful a commission would be. Gardner wants to help prevent suicides, but doesn’t think this is the right approach.

“You get 25 people in a room to solve a problem, and then chances of getting any focus to solve the problem would be astounding,” he said.

Representative Spencer Swalm (R-Centennial) also voted against the commission, he questioned if it would have really made things better.

“This is such a difficult problem. This is just a feel good measure that I don’t believe is going to make any difference,” said Swalm.< p=""><>

The bill ended up clearing both chambers with bipartisan support and is awaiting the Governor’s signature. Other proposals addressing mental health issues weren’t so lucky.

Efforts led by Democratic representative Tracy Kraft-Tharp of Arvada to change the definitions for people who are involuntarily committed, failed or were withdrawn. Right now she said a person has to be in imminent danger to be civilly committed, which is vague.

“I used to run an adolescent crisis center for teenagers,” said Kraft-Tharp, referring to her 25 years in experience in the mental health field. “We found a girl hanging in the shower. We cut her down, we called the mental health center and they came an hour later and said she’s not in imminent danger, she looks fine, she’s sitting next to you. Imminent is a very subjective standard, everyone interprets it differently.”

The bill [HB 14-1386 .pdf] got bogged down in the ongoing gun debate. Kraft-Tharp said some worried that changing the definitions would mean more people would be civilly committed, impacting their right to own a gun.

“The NRA understood it didn’t have anything to do with gun rights, but Rocky Mountain Gun Owners saw this as a bill that was increasing the number of people who could be committed, which would affect gun rights. That messaging was not helpful because people started to believe it had to do with gun rights,” said Kraft-Tharp.

Gun rights were a major topic during the 2013 legislative session. In hindsight, some Democrats say they think it caused a stigma for mental health issues and unfairly linked the topic to Second Amendment fights. But Jarred Hindman with the office of suicide prevention said lawmakers missed on opportunity during the gun debate.

“Seventy six percent of our firearm related deaths in Colorado are suicide deaths,” said Hindman. “The legislation didn’t really talk about suicide when those bills were being considered and passed. In my opinion that’s a considerable gap. If we’re going to talk about firearms and firearm safety and we don’t talk about suicide.”

Mental health advocates say the biggest victory happened when the state created walk-in 24 hour mental health crisis centers to the tune of nearly $20 million. Even that victory is tied up, there’s currently a lawsuit over the contract the state awarded and things are on hold.

Another piece of legislation from 2013 [SB 13-266 .pdf] is moving forward. The contract for a statewide mental health crisis hotline will be finalized later in May. Mental health professionals will answer calls on the 24-hour hotline and make referrals to get people the help they need.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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