By Shaun Boyd
DENVER (CBS4)– Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed a bill into law that overhauls the state’s mental health response system and de-criminalizes mental illness.
The new law ends the practice of putting people who are in crisis in jail.
“Having a mental illness is terrifying in itself in your own brain,” says Chrissie Hodges, who knows what it’s like to be held against her will for no other reason than a mental illness. “It’s that added layer of shame that really does exacerbate the symptoms. It really makes you believe you shouldn’t be part of society.”
When the state closed mental institutions several decades ago, it unwittingly replaced them with jail cells. Colorado is one of only six states that still jails people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
“This notion that people who have committed no crime, but they’re going through a real mental health crisis, could be locked up for 72 hours or sometimes even more is un-American,” says Gov. John Hickenlooper, who fought to change the practice with the help of Rep. Joe Salazar, a Democrat representing and Sen. John Cooke, a Republican representing Weld County who is also a former sheriff.
“In rural Colorado, we don’t have facilities like this and so the sheriff is put in bad spot – do I release this person back into the community even though they’re having a mental health crisis or are a danger to themselves or others or do I hold them in jail longer than I should because there’s no place available?” Cooke told those attending the bill signing at Community Reach Center’s new walk-in crisis center in Westminster.
Cooke and Salazar carried the bill that creates a statewide crisis response system. It earmarks seven-and-a-half million dollars in pot taxes to build a statewide crisis response system that includes more walk in centers and mobile treatment teams in every part of the state.
“It really does send a message to the rest of the state of Colorado that we’re going to act in a humane and thoughtful way towards people who are having a mental health crisis,” says Salazar.
The Colorado Department of Human Services – which headed up a task force that developed recommendations for the bill – states nearly 122,000 people have sought help at one of the state’s 11 existing walk in crisis centers in the last 10 months alone.
Nancy VanDeMark is Director of CDHS Office of Behavioral Health, “Even a couple hours in some cases is too long to wait for services so the mobile crisis teams will maybe transport the individual to the right place or maybe work with law enforcement to make sure the transport is done in an appropriate way. There will be the opportunity for local communities to work with law enforcement and hospitals on what’s the best solution to the problem.”
Hodges says if people in crisis have support, they have hope, “Recovery is possible for anyone. It doesn’t matter what the illness or the circumstance, and, a lot of times that starts with the treatment and it starts with the people they first encounter. If you show someone you believe they can get better then they have a good shot at being able to live in recovery.”