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Opinion: A plan emerges to fix Colorado’s broken mental health system

An effective and well-functioning behavioral health system should treat people in need early to prevent a crisis further down the road. But in Colorado, our system fails to do so year after year.

For far too long, behavioral health has been a forgotten component of health care, resulting in a broken system that has continually left too many Coloradans without the critical care they need. The situation has only worsened over the last two years due to the lack of access to services and exacerbated mental health issues surrounding the pandemic.

Colorado’s health care system should deliver affordable, high-quality, and accessible care to everyone — including mental health care and substance use disorder treatment. But our state is at the bottom of the pack when it comes to behavioral health care, and the results speak for themselves.

In Colorado, nearly one-third of adults with a mental health issue report they are not getting the treatment they need, according to Mental Health America. Over the last decade, youth suicide has increased an astonishing 51%, and because we don’t provide adequate services, our children are sent out-of-state to address their behavioral health needs. Hundreds of Coloradans suffer in our jail cells because they have nowhere else to go, exacerbating the problem and making their conditions worse. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the latest data show that 1,477 Coloradans died of drug overdoses in 2020 — the most overdose deaths ever recorded in the state and a 38% increase from 2019.

This crisis touches every corner of our state. As people who have either dealt with mental health challenges or have cared for a loved one struggling with these conditions ourselves, we recognize the urgency of the issue before us. We know firsthand how difficult it is to access critical care and treatment.

Behavioral health care has been last on the priority list for decades and one of the largest barriers has been the stigma that exists — this is unacceptable. The state’s inability to deliver critical behavioral care to those who need it most is a moral failing and too many Coloradans have suffered the consequences.

Anyone who has tried to help a loved one with a mental health condition or substance use disorder in Colorado knows how hard it is to access care. We must fix this broken system and create a coordinated system of services to ensure that every Coloradan gets the behavioral health treatment they need. We need to reform our system so that it meets people where they are.

We’re excited to make a once-in-a-lifetime investment to transform our behavioral health care system to better meet the needs of Coloradans. For the last several months, we have been working with our colleagues on the Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force, behavioral health experts, and local leaders to determine how best to distribute $450 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds throughout Colorado. After receiving unanimous approval from the task force on the funding recommendations in our final report, we’re ready to move Colorado forward.

With this historic opportunity, we’re going to make life-saving investments to ensure that fewer people die from disease and overdose, help Coloradans navigate the system every step of the way, and direct them to the right care so they can find the services they need when they need them.

These resources will make sure primary care physicians and pediatricians are equipped to connect patients with appropriate behavioral health specialists. The funds will be used to expand access to mental health and substance use disorder screening, and for workforce training to increase the availability of behavioral health treatment. This will lead to better-coordinating referrals to other levels of care and social services. The funds will also provide wrap-around services as well as critical community and school-based supports to help families better care for their kids.

We’re also going to expand existing criminal justice diversion programs that have proven successful by improving access to adult residential care like sober living homes, peer-run respite homes, club houses, and drop-in centers, helping the most vulnerable Coloradans get treatment, not punishment.

Finally, to help us reach these goals, we’re going to make a significant investment in the hardworking Coloradans who keep our behavioral health systems running by creating more educational pathways for providers, expanding telehealth options, increasing capacity and training within the behavioral health safety net, and ensuring recruitment efforts reflect the community being served and include opportunities for providers to grow professionally within their field. With a robust workforce, we will ensure Colorado behavioral health care providers are able to see more patients while providing top-quality care.

Our efforts to address this ongoing crisis don’t stop here. If we are serious about addressing this crisis, we must remember that mental health care is just as important, valuable, and worthy of treatment as physical health care.

We have a long road ahead of us, and these one-time funds are just the start.

Brittany Pettersen, a staunch advocate for people with mental health conditions and substance use disorders, serves as Chair of the Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force and represents Senate District 28 in Jefferson County. Faith Winter is a member of the Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force and represents Senate District 24, which includes parts of Westminster, Thornton, and Northglenn. Chris Kolker represents Senate District 27, which encompasses most of Centennial and some of Englewood, Littleton, and Greenwood Village, and serves as a member of the Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force.

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