Five years after the Aurora theater shooting, what's the status of mental health care?

Theater shooting changed crisis care in Colorado
Posted at 6:35 PM, Jul 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-21 08:59:09-04

DENVER -- It's an outcome of the Aurora Theater Shooting we don't talk about a lot.

What happened that July night changed lives forever, but it also forever changed how Colorado helps those dealing with mental health crises.

Following the mass shooting that took the lives of 12 innocent victims, lawmakers passed a bill to fund a statewide mental health crisis response system.

It created a 24/7 hotline, a mobile crisis team, eleven 24-hour walk in care centers, and short-term respite care to help those in crisis.

Five years later, Denver7 looks at what's working, who its helped and the future of the program.

Colorado's 24/7 Crisis Hotline

Bev Marquez runs Colorado's crisis hotline. She was working at a different call center when the theater shooting happened, but that night has stayed with her both personally and professionally.

"When it's a tragedy in the community you are a part of, it has a much different impact," said Marquez.

"What will you never forget about that day and the days that followed," asked Denver7 reporter Jennifer Kovaleski.

"I think just the deep grief, said Marquez. "Feeling at a loss as a crisis professional in some ways to help people."

The free crisis hotline (844-493-8255) that didn't exist before the shooting provides a lifeline for help and resources from licensed counselors.

"That is a big difference and wasn't available in a constant and reliable way," said Marquez.

Counselors can connect callers who are struggling with resources. They also follow up with them in the following days to make sure they're doing OK, and, if needed, can even dispatch a mobile team directly to a person's location.

Colorado Mother who's been through crisis

A Colorado mother whose son struggled through a crisis both before and after the changes to mental care said the services available now versus then are significant.

"We called the hotline the first time as well, and they were helpful. But they were helpful to the point of, 'You need to take him to the emergency room,' and then they were done," she said. "The last time they called back to check on him, they spoke with him for about an hour on the phone -- it was a very different dynamic."

This mother asked us to hide her identify for a reason that is quite revealing about what it's like to have a son dealing with mental illness.

"Because as far as we've come, we still have a long way to go," she explained. "I can't put my son in a situation to be bullied or to be made fun of."

It also shows that the stigma around mental health still exists.

At age 9, she said her bright, outgoing son had plans to take his own life.

"We lost friends. We had friends, we had family members start to turn on us. We had people accuse us of being bad parents," she said.

Back then, she said they felt like they had nowhere to turn - but it was a completely different story when her now 15-year-old son relapsed 1 1/2 years ago.

"What does that mean to you as a mom?" asked Kovaleski.

"Everything. My son's life was in the balance," she said.

Number of people helped

Since 2014, Colorado's crisis response system has helped more than a half-million people.

"I think it means that the demand is very high," said Marquez.

More work to be done

Colorado has made a lot of progress in the last five years when it comes to mental health, but advocates say it hasn't been enough and there are still gaps in care. 

"We don't do a particularly good job in psychiatric beds. We're not doing nearly enough around prevention and early intervention. We have one of the highest suicide rates in the nation," said CEO and president of Mental Health Colorado, Andrew Romanoff.

Romanoff also said the mental health industry is dealing with a shortage of workers, which has added to some of the challenges.

"It's horrible and heartbreaking and the truth is it shouldn't take a tragedy to make us understand the importance of mental health," he said.

Because whether it's friends, family or even strangers. Mental illness touches everyone.

"There's not one person who's going to go through their life without mental health struggles; there's just not," said the Colorado mother who's dealt with crisis.

Future of funding for the program 

When lawmakers passed the bill to fund Colorado's crisis response system, it provided $20 million a year for these services. The Department of Human Services said the funding has since increased to $25 million.

Marquez said she believes lawmakers will continue to fund the program unless cuts are made to the state budget.

The state will also be reviewing contracts and will put out new bids for service at the five-year mark in 2019. 

Any push for extra money for things like more psychiatric beds or counselors in schools would need to be signed off by state lawmakers.