Untreated: I-News Series on Soaring Costs of Mental Illness in Colorado

Mental illness in Colorado costs some $5.4 billion each year – or about $1,000 for every resident of the state, according to an analysis by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. First published in May, “Untreated: How Ignoring Mental Illness Costs Us All” is a deep look at the issue in Colorado and will change the way you think about one of the biggest public health crises we face. To read each of three parts, click on the headlines below.

Christina Jackson says her grief and depression after the death of her sister preceded a flood of medical problems. (Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Christina Jackson says her grief and depression after the death of her sister preceded a flood of medical problems. (Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)

Addressing mental health issues key in helping medical system’s “frequent flyers”

A small percentage of patients who visit emergency rooms and pharmacies and other hospital services rack up eight times more in medical costs on average than their peers. Many of these people also suffer from mental illnesses that compound, mask or drive their physical ills. This simple fact is leading medical professionals and health officials in Colorado to rethink how to curb high costs in the healthcare system. They say that it’s impossible to treat the most expensive patients, the frequent flyers, without addressing mental health. The overall costs of mental illness in Colorado are staggering – some $5.4 billion annually, about $1,000 for every person in the state, according to a composite analysis of recognized surveys.

Erin Hedden hands are cuffed and chained to a waist belt during an interview at Pueblo County, Colo., jail. (Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Erin Hedden hands are cuffed and chained to a waist belt during an interview at Pueblo County, Colo.(Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)

Colorado’s largest mental health treatment facility: the jails

People with mental illnesses in Colorado are more than five times as likely to be housed in jails or in prisons than in hospital psychiatric beds. Colorado’s sheriffs say county jails are overwhelmed with inmates who need hospitalization or treatment for their mental health problems – not incarceration. “Years ago we deinstitutionalized mental health treatment,” says Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. “People felt it was shameful that we had people in custody or locked up in mental health facilities. Now, instead, we lock them up in jail.” In many instances, the most seriously mentally ill are locked away in solitary confinement.

Danielle Nordeen, right, holds her seven-year-old son's hand in a park near their Grand Junction, Colo., home. (Photo by Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Danielle Nordeen, right, holds her seven-year-old son’s hand in a park near their Grand Junction, Colo., home.(Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)

What prevents intervention?

Family members of people with mental illness who are in danger of harming themselves or others say they can’t find treatment when they need it. The mass tragedies of Columbine and Aurora were both seemingly linked to spiraling descent into mental illness. And yet intervention continues to prove a conundrum, stymied by a lack of inpatient beds and outpatient treatment options. Involuntary mental-health treatment in Colorado jumped by 35 percent in the past five years, according to state officials, while the number of hospital psychiatric beds has decreased by 20 percent.

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