The story of mental health care in our country is a harrowing one.

During the dark days of the asylum era last century, the mentally ill were often warehoused in medieval institutions and restrained with iron chains and shackles around their ankles and wrists. One of those people was Rosemary Kennedy, President John Kennedy’s sister, whose father had her lobotomized and forever hidden in such a place.

In the early 1950s, as health care practices and attitudes toward mental illness began to change and new medicines and therapies emerged, a group called Mental Health America issued a call to asylums across the country for their discarded chains and shackles. On April 13, 1953, at the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, these restraints were melted down and recast into the 300-pound Mental Health Bell. An inscription on the bell reads: Cast from shackles which bound them, this bell shall ring out hope for the mentally ill and victory over mental illness.

A short time later, President Kennedy, with his sister in mind, pushed through a bill to forever close the country’s asylums and replace them with small community clinics. He said of the law that the ‘’reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.’’

We’ve come a long way since the big hospitals were closed and that bell was made, but recent statistics suggest there is still a long way to go to shake the less visible shackles — of misunderstanding, stigma, and a shocking lack of adequate care — that still bind people with mental illness.

The Community Mental Health Act was passed just weeks before Kennedy was killed in Dallas. As a result, the closing of asylums happened, but his vision for replacing them with a network of small community centers was never fully realized or funded.

“Deinstitutionalization,” as it is now called, created problems of its own, and many of the mentally ill have ended up with nowhere to go, landing in prisons or on the streets, hopeless and homeless.

In fact, prisons have become the nation’s default mental health treatment centers since. A report by Human Rights Watch has found that American prisons and jails contain three times more mentally ill people than do our psychiatric hospitals.

Crisis in Colorado

Unfortunately, Colorado is now one of the states with the worst record of caring for its mentally ill. Often celebrated as the healthiest state in the country, we’re actually one of the unhealthiest when it comes to behavioral health.

The 2017 Colorado Health Access Survey shows that 450,000 people didn’t get the mental health care services or substance abuse services they needed. The true number is likely much larger, of course, because the study did not include people who didn’t want or admit to needing services.

A recent national report ranks Colorado among the worst states in the nation in the prevalence of mental health and substance use disorders. A lack of long-range treatment oversight, insufficient numbers of psychiatrists and other mental health care professionals, and hurdles for family members getting their loved ones help make Colorado a “poster child” for failures in the mental health care system, according to a Mental Health America analysis.

By another measure, Colorado ranks 48th in the nation for the number of children who need mental health services but cannot access them. An estimated 226,000 kids and teens in Colorado have diagnosable mental health conditions, yet only 21 percent receive professional care, according to Children’s Hospital. Colorado “does not have a functional statewide pediatric mental health system,” Shannon Van Deman, vice president of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute and executive director of Partners for Children’s Mental Health, said to me.

And our beautiful home beneath Pikes Peak has its unique set of challenges. Suicides in El Paso County have soared over the past decade, nearly doubling.

The county now has the highest number of suicides each year in the state and has the second highest rate per 100,000 among the state’s major counties.

Yearlong investigation

This year at The Gazette, we’ve decided to shine a light on this crisis. A team of reporters is working on Mental Health Care: Crisis in Colorado, investigating why our system isn’t serving those in need better, how it got this way, what its greatest challenges are, and how it might get better.

But we need your help putting a human face on these numbers. All of us Coloradans, I would argue, know someone in our families or circles of friends and acquaintances who has struggled with a mental condition. Not one of the dozens of experts we’ve talked to has argued against the notion that our state is in crisis when it comes to access to care.

So we’re looking for courage. We’re looking for your stories of lived experience, stories about the challenges of coping with a mental health condition — as a peer or as a family member.

We’re looking for stories about brave souls facing down the barriers in our hodgepodge system of care. And we’re looking for stories about programs that work.

Help us tell those stories over the next year so our state can better address this crisis affecting all of us.

Like that inscription on that bell says, help us ring out hope for the mentally ill.

How to reach us

Here are the reporters working on this project now. More will join later. Send them an email if you can help.

The overall crisis: Jakob.rodgers@gazette.com

Patients’ stories: Stephanie.earls@gazette.com

The barriers to care: Bill.radford@gazette.com

Pediatric care issues: Debbie.kelley@gazette.com

Care challenges for military vets: Tom.roeder@gazette.com

Law enforcement and mental health: Lance.benzel@gazette.com

Insurance and parity issues: Bill.radford@gazette.com

The politics of mental health care: joey.bunch@coloradopolitics.com

Solutions and the road ahead: jim.trotter@gazette.com

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