DENVER – The Colorado Department of Human Services is ramping up its support of co-responder programs that place mental health professionals alongside police, when officers are handling calls related to people in a mental health crisis.
Those programs are intended to keep jails and prisons from filling up with minor offenders dealing with mental health issues.
“That’s a trend we want to accelerate and continue,” said former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, now President and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. “We know that in most cases, people with mental illness are not committing crimes, they’re far more likely, in fact, to be the victims of crime.”
Romanoff, who lost a cousin to suicide three years ago, said when co-responder programs first started, there was skepticism among people in law enforcement, “until they saw the benefits of this approach and recognized that…the presence of a mental health professional is critical.”
“Having one on site is invaluable,” he said. “We just need to make sure the folks are getting a course of treatment that follows the crisis.”
Romanoff said there should be a bigger focus on preventing crisis in the first place.
“In Colorado, we do a good job responding to a crisis,” he said, “but not a particularly good job at preventing a condition from becoming a crisis.”
He said that means investing in prevention and early intervention, arresting symptoms at an early stage and recognizing that the first signs of mental illness usually appear in adolescence, but there is a gap (an 8 to 10-year delay) between the onset of symptoms and the arrival of treatment.
“I want to be clear,” he said, “this is a choice we’ve made in this state to short change prevention and early intervention/treatment, and to use our jails and prisons as warehouses for people with mental illness and substance abuse disorders.”
“It’s a bad choice,” he added, “but it’s a choice that can be changed.”
Romanoff said Colorado passed a law last year that ends the use of jails for mental health emergencies.
This year, he said, the focus will be on getting more schools equipped with mental health professionals, enforcing existing laws, and providing more services and facilities to treat people who are in need.
When asked how much that might cost, Romanoff replied, “We’re spending a lot of money now. We’re just spending it in the wrong places. We’re watching our jails and prisons fill up with people dealing with mental health and substance abuse disorders. We’re watching emergency rooms fill up because people don’t know where to turn."
When asked how soon the increase in spending up front will result in less spending on prisons and jails, Romanoff said, “It’s a little hard to catch a dog that doesn’t bark, so if you haven’t seen a reduction in demand at the criminal justice system, I think you will at least see a reduction in the rate of increase.”