Colorado To Cease Using Jails for Mental Health ‘Holds’

Colorado has had the practice of holding patients needing psychiatric evaluation in jail for many years. There are a number of states who utilize the local, county or municipal jails for such purposes around the country. Some observers of the long term history mental health services’ delivery, have chalked up this practice to the lack of hospitals and therefore emergency rooms, in large areas of states that have no psychiatric services. This practice has largely been dropped by most states. It seems to persist especially in western states where communities are far from such facilities and have to rely on the local jails to ‘hold’ prospective mental health patients who need emergency evaluations and there are no suitable mental health resources available locally.

The term mental health ‘hold’ is essentially another term for an “involuntary civil detention” of a person who has not committed a crime but is a danger to themselves or others. Usually, these kinds of orders in Colorado and other states such as Kansas, to permit holding persons against their will for up to 72 hours. Kansas, for the curious reader, is struggling at present with the issue of how to structure their involuntary holding process altogether.

Colorado now is moving legislatively to force the abandonment of this practice for once and all. In an article entitled, “Colorado would outlaw using jails for mental health holds, increase services under $9,5 million proposal,” written by reporter Jennifer Brown and published in the newspaper, the Denver Post yesterday, this attempt at modernizing and providing mental health intervention and referral services before persons in need have to parked in jails is detailed.

The main thrust and corrective action of this bill would be to establish “two-person teams” that would perform evaluations locally and refer persons felt to be having more mental health problems than legal ones, on to suitable treatment resources before they would be placed in a local jail. This bill would ban the use of jails as holding areas for such persons based on an initial judgment of their being a danger to themselves or others, such as persons who made suicidal threats and about whom an emergency phone call has been issued by families or spouses to the first responders who usually are the police.

The bill would further increase the availability of the on call assessment teams, increase local crisis response centers and transportation from rural areas to treatment centers. A “behavior health specialist” would work directly with police on such emergent service requests and in effect intervene to deflect the crisis-bound person in need to treatment rather than to a local jail.

Interestingly enough, the funding for this expansion of statewide largely rural emergency mental health services is envisioned to be funded by monies from the medical marijuana retail industry now legal and growing in Colorado.

Presently, Colorado law permits holding such a person deemed in mental health crisis in jails for up to 24 hours and then mandating disposition such as transportation to a distant behavioral health services center, such as a clinic or a large urban hospital ER, or the state hospital many miles away also. In practice, it appears that such persons in crisis were held for longer than the prescribed 24 hours and that counties found the volume of such patients to be higher than they were equipped to deal with. The article notes one example county had over one hundred persons in its jails in little over a year’s period of time. The article makes mention of the issues seen all over the country, that law enforcement agencies face day in, day out, namely the lack of resources to provide transportation for patients. It notes that counties would face the issue of removing a law enforcement officer from patrol service to the county when a patient would be driven to a far distant mental health service center. The article notes that this is a much bigger problem in the wide open spaces, sparsely populated of Colorado’s western counties. I lived in western Colorado for a few years as a young child in mountainous mining towns and my trips back later in life showed things and population densities had not changed. So I read the dilemmas that the agencies providing mental health or first responder services in the vast reaches of a western state and immediately sensed why.

The article notes that Colorado has the sixth highest suicide rate in the USA, yet is in the bottom half of the states in this country as far as providing adequate mental health/substance abuse services.

Observers of the mental health reform scene in this country may watch Colorado’s admirable restructuring of mental health service delivery efforts through the vehicle of this commendable legislation.

 

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