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Finding common ground on mental health, substance abuse

By: Andrew Romanoff
April 1, 2018 Updated: April 1, 2018 at 4:05 am
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Mental Health Colorado President Andrew Romanoff thanks the participants in a bipartisan gubenernatorial candidate forum on mental health and substance abuse issues Friday, March 23, 2018, in Denver - Steve Barlock, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, Greg Lopez, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, former state Rep. Victor Mitchell, Doug Robinson and Erik Underwood. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

DENVER - Put six Republicans and three Democrats on the same stage, and you might not expect them to agree on anything. When it comes to improving mental health care, however, you can find common ground.

Nine candidates shared a stage last week at Mental Health Colorado's first gubernatorial forum. The consensus: We ought to make it harder for people who pose a danger to themselves or others to get guns, and easier for them to get treatment.

Those are two of the top priorities we're urging the Legislature to address this year. The first is called an extreme risk protection order; it would allow law enforcement officers to remove weapons from the homes of individuals at risk of suicide or violence.

Five states have enacted such laws, and the approach seems to be working. No law can prevent every tragedy, but studies show that restricting access to firearms in these circumstances - even temporarily -reduces the likelihood of harm.

The laws require a court order and appropriate regard for due process rights. With those provisions in place, the extreme risk protection order has earned the support of the National Rifle Association, among other organizations.

Every gubernatorial candidate at our forum signed on, and we're asking the General Assembly to follow suit. Mental Health Colorado is working with members of both parties to introduce and pass legislation this month.

To be clear, most people with mental illness are not violent; they are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. But for those at risk of suicide, a gun represents the most lethal means.

Suicides account for more than two-thirds of gun deaths in America, and an even higher share in Colorado. More than 1,000 Coloradans die by suicide each year - a death toll this proposal can decrease.

Just as critical is access to treatment. Each year, an estimated 35,000 Coloradans experience a mental health crisis that makes them gravely disabled or places them in imminent danger. That's a conservative figure, based on the number of people who are subjected to involuntary holds.

Under current law, those holds can last for up to 72 hours. Once that time is up, roughly 10 percent of these individuals are certified for involuntary treatment. But most don't meet that standard, and many never get treatment. For some, the cycle of crisis simply repeats itself.

That's why we're asking the Legislature to step in. Instead of waiting for more Coloradans to fall through the cracks, we ought to help them get care.

Our proposal would establish care coordination teams, providing assistance in housing, employment, and treatment. The state supplies such assistance to individuals who leave Colorado's mental health institutes, through the transition specialist program.

But the vast majority of Coloradans, even those with severe mental illness, are not institutionalized- and don't need to be. Colorado's experience, as well as that of other states, shows that proper treatment and support improve outcomes and lower the demand on hospitals, emergency rooms, and the criminal justice system.

Turning our jails and prisons into warehouses for people with mental health or substance use disorders is the most expensive and least therapeutic decision we can make.

The bottom line: It's far cheaper, more effective, and ultimately more humane to treat mental illness than to ignore it or to criminalize it.

That's a conclusion with which every candidate - and, we hope, a majority of our elected officials-can agree.

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Andrew Romanoff is president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado (mentalhealth colorado.org), the state's leading advocate for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. He served as the speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

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