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.
A very recent article, Colorado Still Lacks Inpatient Psychiatric Care by Ms. Elizabeth Drew published May 10, 2016 documents the same kinds of problems with psychiatric acute inpatient treatment resources that many other states have faced around the USA for the last 15 to 20 years.
Ms. Drew highlights the backdrop that started the mental health reform effort in Colorado so suddenly and starkly. Colorado suffered the misfortune to have the two double tragedies of mass shootings, the Columbine High School tragedy a number of years ago and the more recent Aurora CO theater shootings of 2012 committed by the then clearly psychotic James Holmes, whose trial riveted the nation. The James Holmes shooting caused a huge outcry from the public in that state for major and thoroughgoing changes in mental health services’ delivery.
Colorado has closed two state hospitals due to aging facilities being shut down and not being replaced. Colorado ranks now well below the current statistical average of 14 or so (13.9 in the previous blog posting’s article) per 100,000 beds for public inpatient psychiatric care in the state. Like many other states, its public mental health system has suffered greatly in the past two decades with inadequate funding and lack of growth of services commensurate with its higher than national average population growth. And like many other states, tragedies have begun to ramp up in severity, frequency and publicity as the “chickens have come home to roost.”
This article describes the very ambitious and quite rapid changes in point of fact, that Colorado put into place just last year, only about three years or so after the Aurora theater shooting. A massive state-wide system of acute outpatient crisis centers and much more rapid access to mental health contact, screenings and referrals to treatment resources was put in place. This clearly had a positive effect. Admirably, Colorado has begun a serious open effort to evaluate only one year into the operation of its new system. The results have been mixed and no matter what criticisms or kudos one may choose to endorse. Colorado, in my opinion as a long-time observer of mental health reform efforts nationwide, had commendable courage to permit and undertake this open review process. This review effort, documented in Ms. Drew’s article appears to show two results if I may condense and categorize them: 1) positive results in the delivery of acute mostly outpatient services, and 2) the common bugaboo of the yet unaddressed shortage of acute inpatient hospital beds seen now almost everywhere. Ms. Drew succinctly summarizes the reasons for this as relating to loss and closure of state hospital psychiatric beds and facilities, and, inadequate funding at the state and federal levels of the riddle of the expense of inpatient psychiatric hospital based treatment. [In a coming post I will try my psychiatric hand at explaining why inpatient psychiatric treatment is always expensive].
In coming posts, I will try my psychiatric hand at enumerating other issues common to all states beyond hospital beds that make the current mental health delivery crisis so severe. These issues will include the shortage of mental health professionals especially psychiatrists and the history of some more discrete and largely unknown to the public, mental health training fund losses that have caused our current severe practitioner shortages.