State Boosts Mental Health Dollars, but Is it Enough?

An initiative put forward by Gov. John Hickenlooper in the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting is intended to improve mental health services in the state by putting nearly $20 million into walk-in crisis centers and a state-wide hotline.

Additional funding will also be put into modernizing treatment at the state’s two public mental health institutes, Fort Logan in Denver and Pueblo, boosting inpatient capacity and other services, resulting in an overall 13.5 percent increase for behavioral health care in fiscal year 2013-2014.

The money is badly needed, say state officials, healthcare providers and advocates for the mentally ill, to ease pressure on emergency rooms and jails.

But many of the doctors and professionals working on the front lines of the crisis say the money isn’t enough to fill a yawning gap in services to prevent and treat mental illness.

Per-capita spending on mental health services in the state, when adjusted by the medical rate of inflation, dropped 28 percent from 1981 to 1990, according to data collected by the National State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute Inc., or NRI. Federal budget cuts and an economic crisis in Colorado contributed to that steep decline. And the cuts made in that decade were never recovered, according to analysis of the data by I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS. In 2010, the state spent the equivalent of 20 percent less per person on mental health services than it did in 1981.

The persistent funding shortfall long ago made jails and prisons the primary residential treatment centers for the mentally ill, clogged emergency rooms, boosted medical expenses across the board, and expanded the ranks of the homeless on the streets of Denver and other cities.

On an average Friday or Saturday night, the mentally ill can make up about half of the sick, injured and wounded crowding the rooms and hallways of the emergency department at Denver Health, according to Dr. Chris Colwell, department director. These are people who might not be there at all if they had received essential mental health care elsewhere, he says.

As inpatient psychiatric beds have disappeared across the state, he’s watched the problem get worse.

“I don’t think people understand the crisis that we’re in,” Colwell says.

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