EDITORIAL: Mental health pitch only a starting point for a safety

A host of Colorado lawmakers irresponsibly gutted mental health programs during the 1990s in an effort to reduce the size of Colorado’s government.

BY THE AURORA SENTINEL

Colorado and the nation have a long ways to go in keeping us all safer from gun violence.

But Gov. John Hickenlopper took at least a small step forward this week by proposing a renewed focus on mental health services in Colorado. The changes he proposed are tentative, and far from what’s needed not only to provide for desperately needed mental health services, but also for services that might somehow stop assaults and murders.

After months of focus, Hickenlooper is asking state lawmakers to provide an additional $19 million to expand statewide mental health services, which would include a crisis hotline and five always-open walk-in centers.

It’s a start, but Hickenlooper and others are naive if they believe this might make a substantive dent in the incredible need for services in Colorado, or that this alone would be enough to create a community safer from gun violence than it is today. A safer community depends just as much on gun control reform, if not more. But increasing mental health services is equally needed, only the need calls for much, much more.

Last year, a report revealed that states and the federal government had cut a whopping $2 billion from mental health programs across the country, sending already overloaded and nearly meaningless resources to the breaking point. Here and across the country, massive cuts to mental health services in the 1960s and 1980s have been combined with consistent and pervasive smaller reductions in services. The entire problem is made worse because mental health services still carry a stigma with most of the population, and many health insurance companies provide unsatisfactory and often no benefits for paying members.

Truly, when looking at some cases of horrendous gun violence, including right here in Aurora in the case of James Holmes and the July 20 theater shootings, the deadly shooting melee that left former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords with brain damage, and most likely the recent slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, prophylactic mental health intervention might have prevented these massacres.

But as with so many deadly and critical issues in the United States, our shortsightedness means that we prefer a government that deals with dangerous problems after the fact, rather than head them off. A host of Colorado lawmakers irresponsibly gutted mental health programs during the 1990s in an effort to reduce the size of Colorado’s government. Now, those who would have been much happier, healthier and productive persons, are being treated by state-sponsored mental health programs. They have become expensive liabilities in prison cells and state hospitals.

It’s a lesson that legislators never seem to learn. By ignoring the real mental health needs of so many here and across the country, hoping they’ll just go away or really not caring about those who are suffering, we create a system that costs so much more in providing an endless list of other, more expensive programs and services to people who just don’t function.

It’s not just state officials who just don’t get it. In 2006, Aurora lawmakers killed an effort by Aurora Mental Health to create a mental health district at bargain rates to ensure residents with psychological problems get the treatment they need to keep them living productive lives instead of becoming expensive liabilities in prisons, state hospitals and unemployment programs. We could not create a more expensive or ineffective way to deal with health care in the United States if we tried.

So while we applaud Hickenlooper for recognizing Colorado’s shortfall when it comes to mental health services, we want to point out how little this proposal really offers compared to what’s needed. As the state Legislature reconvenes in January, we would hope state House and Senate leaders find a way to expand on the governor’s recommendations.

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