Denver Launches New Office to Address Behavioral Health Crisis

Don Mares

Don Mares

Could a coordinated response to mental health issues in Denver help steer the seriously mentally ill and the chronically homeless off the streets and out of jails?

That’s the hope behind an initiative from the mayor’s office. Mayor Michael Hancock has appointed Don Mares to head a new Office for Behavioral Health Strategies, starting in the new year, to tie together the disparate efforts of police, jails, schools, homeless services and other offices that each address some facet of behavioral health.

Mares most recently headed Mental Health America of Colorado, an advocacy organization. He’s also held the roles of state legislator, city auditor and head of the state labor department.

In a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday, Mares said that if breast cancer were treated like mental illness in this country, a woman with a lump in her breast would be told to go home and wait until it got worse.

“Then we’d either throw her in jail for treatment or on the street for treatment,” said Mares.

In its Untreated series launched earlier this year, Rocky Mountain PBS I-News documented an increasing need for in-patient psychiatric services in the state, even as the number of beds has declined. Jails and emergency rooms, where adequate treatment is all but impossible, have become a costly last resort for people in acute mental health crises.

The city’s effort is one of several local initiatives aimed at easing the burden on jails and emergency services in handling crises related to mental health. At the statewide level, a new system of crisis stabilization centers is now rolling out, after a series of delays related to a contentious bidding process.

Carl Clark heads the Mental Health Center of Denver, which is one of the community mental health centers contracted to run the crisis units. A walk-in center on Colfax, he said, is open for business.

One of its recent clients was a man discharged from a local hospital without adequate clothing, who was in danger of freezing when a police officer brought him to the crisis center.

“It’s working,” said Clark.

But these are early days for both the statewide crisis units and the city’s newest initiative. Neither the mayor nor Mares would give details about funding for the Office of Behavioral Health Strategies, saying it would depend on the needs that Mares identified in collaboration with other offices.

The precise goals of Mares’ office, too, are yet to be determined, though Hancock said he anticipated progress in the task of coordinating disjointed efforts in behavioral health, and in the way the jail population is treated.


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