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Colorado Slow in Progress on Behavioral Health Care

Colorado continues to struggle to improve access to mental and behavioral health care. (Pixabay)
Colorado continues to struggle to improve access to mental and behavioral health care. (Pixabay)
August 3, 2017

DENVER — As the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo continues to struggle with staffing shortages and rising caseloads, a program in Arapahoe County could point the way for slowing the jail-to-hospital pipeline.

Nancy Jackson, an Arapahoe County Commissioner, said early behavioral and mental health screenings can help reserve hospitalization for those who truly need it.

"Most folks can be treated with traditional kinds of therapy and be fine in the community,” Jackson said. "But they need to be treated, and they can't be treated unless they've been assessed in some way."

Colorado's prison system is currently the largest in-patient provider of behavioral health services in the state, and most of the patients in the Pueblo institution are referred by the courts. Jackson said the state has taken steps to make improvements, but noted the process is slow going mainly due to lack of resources.

She pointed to the Restoring Individuals Safely and Effectively program, which acts as a stop-gap measure to provide people deemed unfit for trial with appropriate treatment, as a model that should be built upon. Before the program was in place, Jackson said, people suffering from mental or behavioral disorders could spend weeks behind bars without access to care or justice.

But she said the real challenge lies in reaching people before low-level symptoms escalate and become much more difficult to treat.

"There's also a real problem with stigma,” Jackson said. "Everybody I know knows somebody who's got some kind of mental health issue. It's not something to be ashamed of, it's part of the human condition."

In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill that adds $7 million to the Office of Behavioral Health in an effort to strengthen the state's crisis system, which includes a 24-hour hotline staffed by professional counselors, a peer line, walk-in crisis centers and stabilization centers.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO