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Opinion: Mental health should be treated as a public health need

Updated: Feb 26, 2022

By CHRIS KOLKER | Guest Commentary

This op-ed was originally published by The Denver Post on April 27, 2021.

In the winter of 1982, a young red-headed boy went to his parent’s basement. He was in the depths of depression, full of self-loathing, fear, and despair when he accessed his father’s unlocked gun cabinet. After what seemed like an eternity, he put back the weapon in which he sought escape. Later that night, as his mother kissed him good night, he told her what he had done. She was incredulous or seemed so at the moment. Stigma and unavailable resources limited her options to help. However, she made sure the cabinet was locked that night and every night since. She protected her son by keeping him home from school for 30 out of the next 45 days.

This was the beginning of my struggle with depression and the suicide ideation that comes with it. A dark moment in my life. I spent time over the last 39 years finding ways to cope on my own until I finally was able to seek professional help as an adult.

I am one of the lucky ones.

My story is not unique. It is being replayed by both young and old today. My heart broke when I learned that among Colorado’s high school youth, one in seven has seriously considered suicide in the past year.

The CDC reports that 1,312 Coloradans committed suicide in 2019, making our state the 5th highest in the nation per capita. According to Mental Health Colorado, more than one million people in our state experience a mental health or substance use disorder each year. Yet, Colorado has fallen to 48th place nationwide in the past two years when it comes to offering mental health care to our youth.

Our mental health system is inadequate because it ignores the plain fact that mental health is health care. Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning. In other words, our minds can affect how healthy our bodies are and vise versa. What we do with our physical body — what we eat, how much we exercise, even our posture — can impact our mental state, positively or negatively. This results in a complex interrelationship between our minds and bodies that requires a multi-pronged, holistic approach to fully address this issue.

To that end, I’ve introduced two bills in the Colorado General Assembly that aim to bridge the gap in our mental health services and ultimately improve patient outcomes.

The first bill, Senate Bill 154, creates an emergency hotline for mental health and suicide prevention — increasing access to immediate help in times of crisis by aligning Colorado with the nationally designated lifeline.

In 2020, Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, designating 988 as the three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to aid rapid access to suicide prevention and mental health support services. So by implementing this designation here at home, we will be able to improve quality and access to behavioral health crisis services, especially for underserved populations and rural areas of the state. And it will reduce stigma surrounding suicide, mental health, and substance use conditions.

The next bill I am sponsoring, House Bill 1130, will help mental and behavioral health recipients with housing, insurance coverage, extended treatment, and other resources as they are transitioning out of acute care. It also allows more individuals to qualify for program services, expands facilities that can offer said services, coordinates referrals of high-risk individuals from withdrawal management facilities, facilitates acute treatment services, provides crisis stabilization services, and refers hospitals or emergency departments to appropriate transition specialists.

Each day I’m alive I’m thankful that I didn’t take my own life all those years ago, but there are too many who aren’t as lucky as I was. Everyone should have a lifeline in their darkest moments, and I am confident my bills will do just that. Because mental health care IS health care, and it’s time that we start treating it as such.

Chris Kolker represents Colorado Senate District 27, which encompasses most of the city of Centennial, as well as parts of Englewood, Littleton, and Greenwood Village.

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