Community Conversation

Carolena Guiral Steen, Dr. Mark A. Mayfield and Bob McLaughlin participate in a Community Conversation on suicide prevention. Screen grab from a video by KKTV.

In the last 20 years, a million and a half people moved to Colorado, according to the latest statistics from the Census Bureau.

They’ve moved here for the sunshine and mountains, for the job opportunities and laid-back people. Some moved here for the 230 craft breweries probably, others for the healthy, outdoor lifestyle.

They have not moved here for the mental health services.

“Daily, we talk to people in other states — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, who call us before they consider moving here with a loved one with mental illness,” Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness/Colorado Springs, said at a Community Conversation on Wednesday evening focused on suicide prevention.

“And we encourage them, do not make this move. If you need this kind of service, if you need a caseworker, if you need wraparound services, if you need supportive housing, and your loved one has that where you are, you probably need to stay there.”

This was the most shocking, troubling thing I heard at the forum co-hosted by The Gazette and KKTV Wednesday night. One of the key leaders in mental health in our community is telling people to stay away.

Another one of the panelists on the front lines of mental health in Colorado Springs, El Paso County sheriff’s deputy John Hammond, seconded Jarvis-Steinwert’s blunt assessment. “The investment in mental health care in Colorado, particularly in El Paso County, is lacking,” he said.

“This is as much a challenge as anything,” Jarvis-Steinwert added. “We need to think differently about how we address the issue because other states are doing it.”

The Gazette is going to accept Jarvis’s challenge. In the next phase in our yearlong investigative series on the crisis in mental health care in the state, we’re going to go visit other places around the country and other cities around our state to see what they do better than our city and state do, what we can learn from them, what best practices we might emulate.

“There are other ways to do it than the way they are doing it in Colorado,” Jarvis said.

Because jails and prisons have become our de facto mental hospitals in Colorado, reporter Rachel Riley has gone to Cook County, Ill., to see what a prison looks like when it is run by a licensed psychologist.

She’s going to tell you about the jail’s treatment wing for mentally ill inmates, the counseling center where inmates with mental illness can get therapy and participate in therapeutic programs, and a community wellness center where people with mental illness can continue treatment after they leave the jail.

Reporter Jakob Rodgers is heading to Tulsa, Okla., this week to see how a nonprofit tasked with improving mental health across Oklahoma has focused not on doling out medication or sending out referrals for therapy. Rather, it’s working to provide stable, affordable housing.

It’s an idea that hits at a central tenet of a community’s mental health care system: If you don’t address the social determinants of health, making gains against the larger crisis will only be harder. He’ll look at what they’ve done in Tulsa, and if it can translate to other communities such as Colorado Springs.

Our court reporter Lance Benzel wants to look closer to home for new approaches to mental health. He’s researching the story of how a Republican-controlled commission in Larimer County turned to a Democrat and former labor organizer to help pass a historic tax hike in the name of reducing mental health tragedies. It’s an example of strange bedfellows and new strategies necessary to effect change on a meaningful scale.

I did hear about one fledgling program Wednesday at the forum that is working extraordinarily well here in Colorado Springs.

After consulting with Jarvis-Steinwert and NAMI, Hammond started a Crisis Response Team on the sheriff’s staff a year ago. Putting his master’s in forensic psychology to good use, he and a clinician from UCHealth now respond to calls the Sheriff’s Office gets that appear to involve mental health issues.

“One unit responsible for 2,100 square miles,” Hammond said. “From the Douglas County line to the Pueblo County line, the Teller County line to the Elbert County line. There is one unit. That is me and another clinician with UCHealth. We were able to respond to about 575 calls for service in regards to mental health. I would like to say the majority of those hopefully have ended well.”

Hammond said their response doesn’t end the day of the call. When they get a call to respond, they handle the call, de-escalate the situation, his partner does a psych evaluation, and they decide on “the least-restrictive means for that individual,” Hammond said.

“We let them have buy-in on what type of treatment they want for their crisis, and then we transport that individual and after that we follow up with that individual to make sure they are getting what they need, making their appointments, and making sure they are getting the medication they need.”

In other words, his team is reinventing police work as we know it. If 60% of the people in our jails are mentally ill, then why not treat those 60% like people who are ill to start with, rather than criminal?

Hammond’s team is a drop in the mental health care bucket as he points out, but his success rate is nothing less than astonishing. He said less than 2% of those 575 calls ended in arrest, and a majority of that 2% were outstanding warrants that he as an officer of the law is required to execute.

That means 563 people who probably would be in jail right now are getting the treatment they need instead because of two determined, stubborn street saints.

People such as John Hammond and Lori Jarvis-Steinwert can lead us to a better state, a state where people with mental health challenges get what they need and are proud and glad to live.

Now we have to figure out how to let them.

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