Gov. Hickenlooper: Improving mental health care could prevent violent crime by unstable individuals

Governor cites Aurora theater shooting

DENVER - Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says now is the time to strengthen Colorado’s mental health care system.

Hickenlooper said that in the wake of the theater shootings in Aurora, he asked Reggie Bicha, the executive director of the Department of Human Services, to identify gaps in services and to formulate a fix.

The governor told reporters at the State Capitol Tuesday that the tragedy in Connecticut adds emphasis to the need to act.


Prevent Bad Things From Happening To Good People

"We believe these policies will reduce the probability of bad things happening to good people," Hickenlooper said.

A defense attorney for a former neuroscience graduate student charged with killing 12 people and wounding 58 other at the Century 16 Theater on July 20 says his client, James Holmes, suffers from mental illness.

In Connecticut, state police say Adam Lanza, the man accused of killing 20 children and six women inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, may have had Asperger's syndrome.

With those tragedies in mind, Hickenlooper has asked state lawmakers for $18.5 million to expand mental health services. He is proposing that $10.2 million of the money be spent on opening five, 24-hour walk-in centers for emergency mental health care in Colorado and establish a statewide mental health crisis hotline.

“We really have a duty after the tragedies… to look at how we help each other,” Hickenlooper said.


Details of Governor's Plan

The governor's proposal is called "Strengthening Colorado’s Mental Health System: A Plan to Safeguard All Coloradans." It includes these five strategies:

Provide the right services to the right people at the right time.

  • Align three statutes into one new civil commitment law. This alignment protects the civil liberties of people experiencing mental crises or substance abuse emergencies, and clarifies the process and options for providers of mental health and substance abuse services (requires legislative change).
  • Authorize the Colorado State Judicial System to transfer mental health commitment records electronically and directly to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in real-time so the information is available for firearm purchase background checks conducted by Colorado InstaCheck (requires legislative change).

 Enhance Colorado’s crisis response system ($10.2 million budget request).

  • Establish a single statewide mental health crisis hotline.
  • Establish five, 24/7 walk-in crisis stabilization services for urgent mental health care needs.

Expand hospital capacity ($2 million budget request).

  • Develop a 20-bed, jailed-based restoration program in the Denver area.

Enhance community care ($4.7 million budget request).

  • Develop community residential services for those transitioning from institutional care.
  • Expand case management and wrap-around services for seriously mentally ill people in the community.
  • Develop two 15-bed residential-care facilities for short-term transition from mental health hospitals to the community.
  • Target housing subsidies to add 107 housing vouchers for individuals with serious mental illness.

Build a trauma-informed culture of care ($1.3 million budget request).

  • Develop peer-support specialist positions in the state’s mental health hospitals.
  • Provide de-escalation rooms at each of the state’s mental health hospitals.
  • Develop a consolidated mental health/substance abuse data system.

The proposal could make a big difference to people like Don Thompson, whose adopted daughter is bi-polar.

“We only got 15 minutes of psych-evaluation every five to six weeks,” Thompson told 7NEWS. “If she wasn’t doing well, they changed her medication.”

Thompson says some experts misdiagnosed his daughter’s condition and she was placed on the wrong drugs for six years.

He said she became more violent.

At one point, the now 13-year-old girl said, "I'm going to hurt you, Daddy, if you don't leave me alone," Thompson said. "And she said it in a voice that scared me…and I'm an ex-cop, not a lot scares me."

Thompson said his attorney stepped forward and demanded that the girl be taken to Children's Hospital in Aurora. He said a doctor there determined that she needed reassessment.

"Now, she's getting the help that she needs," Thompson said.

Thompson’s attorney says there are many reasons that families can’t get help for their loved ones.

She said money is the big issue.

That ongoing problem has been compounded over the last four years by budget cuts.

Since 2009, Colorado’s mental health care budget has been slashed by $9.7 million.

When asked if his proposal restores all the money that’s been cut, Hickenlooper replied, “It doesn’t.”

He said the recession necessitated budget cuts but also allowed state officials the opportunity to step back and take a second look at how to spend the money they did have most wisely.

“We try to figure out with each dollar how we can get the maximum benefit,” Hickenlooper said.

Former state senator “Moe” Keller applauded the governor’s proposal.

“It won’t prevent every problem,” she said, “but it’s a great start. It’s been well vetted. It’s long overdue.”

Keller, who now serves as Vice President of Public Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Mental Health America-Colorado, says for too long, Colorado has been spending money at the wrong end.

“We need to focus on early intervention,” she said. “Right now we’re spending money after people get into trouble.”

“For the Department of Corrections to be the number one provider of mental health services in the state today is outrageous,” Keller said. “We can save courtroom costs.  We can save emergency room costs. We can save law enforcement costs, if we channel the monies the way the governor is suggesting, which is on the front end.

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