Denver Tackles Mental Health

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On Wednesday, Michael Hancock, the Mayor of Denver announced plans for the city’s first Office of Behavioral Health Strategies in an effort to combat mental illness throughout the city. Hancock also announced that he would be appointing Mental Health America of Colorado (MHAC) CEO and former Denver auditor, Don Mares as executive director of the new office.

Mares says he plans to work with multiple departments and agencies to tackle public health, crime prevention, child welfare, substance abuse and homelessness in the city. Hancock says the new department will put forth a “groundbreaking effort” to address flaws in the city’s mental health care services and to provide better communication between the various agencies.

Millions of dollars are spent every year in Denver to treat mental illness in emergency rooms, shelters, jails and prisons, and there are few resources for preventive care, reports The Denver Post. Around 260,000 adults and children require treatments annually for severe mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Roughly $887 million was spent on treating mental health conditions in Colorado in 2010, only half of which was spent in psychiatric hospitals and clinics, according to The Denver Post. The rest of that year’s mental health spending went to child welfare, jails, prisons, emergency rooms and psychiatric units.

Over the past five decades, mental health spending in the U.S. has changed dramatically with the dismantling of many state-run psychiatric institutions in favor community-based treatment, according to The Washington Post. Only about 5.6 percent of the nation’s $113 billion in annual health care spending funds mental health treatment, and the majority of that spending goes to prescription drugs and outpatient treatment. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, inpatient spending for mental health conditions dropped from 42 percent of the overall budget in 1986 to just 19 percent in 2005.

Mental health care is also expensive for many, and 45 percent of Americans with untreated mental illnesses cite cost as the main barrier. At least one-quarter of Americans who received treatment for mental health reported being the main payer for that treatment and the majority of those who sought outpatient treatment from 2005-09 spent between $100 and $5,000 out-of-pocket for services. Adding to the difficulties of psychiatric treatment, hospitals have few incentives to ramp-up mental health, since they receive more money from insurance companies to treat physical conditions than to treat mental conditions and hospitals often consider their psychiatric units a charitable service.

The decrease in health services focused on treating patients before they find themselves in mental health crises adds to the number of mentally ill who are homeless or incarcerated, says The Denver Post. It also highlights the dangers of a system lacking in preventive care measures with increased rates of suicide and a higher propensity for violent episodes among those left untreated. Colorado has the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country and has seen its share of fatal shootings. The 2012 shooting in an Aurora theater that killed 12 and injured 70 sparked a debate about a Colorado policy that restricts police from holding innocent citizens against their will. Colorado remains one of the few states that does not arrest or detain citizens who pose an “imminent danger” to themselves or others unless they have committed a crime.

Mares says he hopes to change the stigma surrounding mental illness and he plans to work with multiple agencies to provide more effective services for the mentally ill to promote a safer community. Mares is set to take office at the beginning of January and will work initially with Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission. John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless says he hopes to see an increase in funding for hospital care and counseling as well as increased efforts to divert the mentally ill from jails and prisons to treatment centers.

By Sree Aatmaa Khalsa


Photo by: Hans Watson – Flickr License
The Denver Post 1
The Denver Post 2
The Denver Post 3
The Washington Post
Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention