Michael Fields

From losing loved ones to losing jobs, the emotional and economic toll of this pandemic has been significant. Over 5,200 of our fellow Coloradans have died from COVID. Many local businesses have closed their doors for good. Unsurprisingly, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide rates are up. According to Gallup, the number of Americans rating their mental health as “excellent” is at the lowest it’s been in decades.

And if things are tough for adults, just think about the impact this is having on our children. Most students have spent the last year in front of computers instead of in classrooms with their teachers and friends. A recent Colorado Department of Education survey found that 52% of school districts said their student’s mental health was a top concern during this time. Now more than ever, it’s time to focus on improving our mental health system in Colorado.

Even before the pandemic, the stats were unsettling. There are 22 counties that don’t have a single psychologist to address mental health issues. Suicides in Colorado have been on the rise for several years. We have the seventh highest suicide rate in the country — and the fifth highest rate for teens. According to Mental Health America, Colorado ranks 33rd when it comes to mental health.

Thankfully, Gov. Jared Polis put together the Behavioral Health Task Force last year to develop recommendations to improve our mental health system. Serving as one of the 25 members of the task force gave me a deeper understanding of the problems with our system and the challenges we face. We received guidance and information from experts — and held town halls to hear from Coloradans across the state about their experiences with our behavioral health system.

After more than a year of work, the Behavioral Health Task Force came up with many sensible recommendations, including:

• Expanding telehealth — which has seen a huge uptick in utilization during the pandemic;

• Ensuring our health care system has parity — meaning people get equal coverage for physical and mental health treatment;

• Making it easier to navigate through the full continuum of mental health services.

The most significant recommendation, however, is to create a Behavioral Health Administration to coordinate services across agencies, reduce redundancies, and increase accountability.

We now spend over $1.4 billion per year on mental health services across 10 state agencies. And still, jails and emergency departments are far too often dealing with mental health issues instead of trained mental health professionals.

The BHA will help provide the guidance necessary to make sure we are best utilizing the resources we are already spending on mental health. I also believe, however, that as our state budget bounces back from this economic downturn, legislators should be open to putting more of those additional funds towards programs and strategies that are actually working.

One example of a successful local effort comes from my home county. In 2017, Douglas County created Community Response Teams to help address mental health crises. These trained professionals are deployed with law enforcement whenever there is a 911 call for things like welfare checks with a mental health component, suicidal subjects, or disturbances. Once the scene is safe, the first responders can return to duty and the CRT can help connect the impacted individuals with mental health resources.

This program has led to better outcomes and has saved the county over $5M in jail and emergency room diversions. After the May 2019 STEM shooting, County Commissioner Lora Thomas also led the effort to create a Community Response Team dedicated to the mental health needs of school children.

We should emulate these successes across the state and work with localities to come up with the best solutions for their communities.

Our state is also blessed with local media outlets that continue to cover this issue — especially the Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado News Collaborative, who have both done extensive series on mental health.

In this hyperpartisan environment, mental health reform is one important issue where we should be able to work together.

Colorado can and must do better. Now is the time to get it done.

Michael Fields is the executive director of Colorado Rising State Action and was a member of the Behavioral Health Task Force.

Michael Fields is the Executive Director of Colorado Rising State Action and was a member of the Behavioral Health Task Force.

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