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John Hickenlooper unveils new mental-health plan, days after Newtown tragedy

This morning's press conference to unveil Colorado's new mental-health plan was scheduled weeks earlier -- but the announcement ended up being very timely, since it took place just days after one of the worst mass shootings in history. And just as Governor John Hickenlooper's recent-gun control comments have been thrust into the spotlight, this mental-health announcement is also likely to get a lot of attention in light of the recent tragedy.

The proposal, discussed in detail today at the State Capitol, is a call for $18.5 million for a major redesign of the state's mental-health system and available services.

On Friday, a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, shot his way into an elementary school and killed 26 people, mostly young children. In terms of the number of casualties, it was an even worse massacre than the Aurora theater shooting this summer, in which a gunman killed twelve and injured dozens more.

Governor John Hickenlooper addresses reporters at the State Capitol.
Governor John Hickenlooper addresses reporters at the State Capitol.
Sam Levin

In the immediate aftermath of the Aurora shootings in July, Hickenlooper did not make any specific calls for policy changes, saying he was not sure that stricter gun laws could have stopped a suspect like James Holmes, who clearly had serious mental-health problems.

But nearly five months later, and before the legislative cycle begins next month, this morning Hickenlooper told reporters that he and the Colorado Department of Human Services have been working since just days after the Aurora tragedy to improve the state's mental-health system and services.

"We planned this press conference today some weeks ago," the governor said. "We did not anticipate the added significance."

Hickenlooper added, "Certainly, now more than ever, we need to have tough discussions about how to enhance our systems and improve the safety of all Coloradans."

The plan, outlined by the governor and Reggie Bicha, the director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, has five components that together add up to an $18.5 million budget request. This funding would have to be approved by the General Assembly for the fiscal-year 2013-'14 budget.

One step, which could address a loophole that gun-control advocates have long highlighted, would authorize the Colorado State Judicial System to, in real-time, transfer mental-health records electronically to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, so that the information would be available for firearm purchase background checks.

The current system sends this data approximately every six months.

Here are some other key components that, added together, would amount to a much-improved redesign of the system, Hickenlooper says:

Enhance Colorado's crisis response system ($10,272,874 budget request). -Establish a single statewide mental health crisis hotline. -Establish five, 24/7 walk-in crisis stabilization services for urgent mental health care needs.

Expand hospital capacity ($2,063,438 budget request). -Develop a 20-bed jailed-based restoration program in the Denver area.

Enhance community care ($4,793,824 budget request). -Develop community residential services for those transitioning from institutional care. -Expand case management and wrap-around services for seriously mentally ill people in the community -Develop two 15-bed Residential Facilities for short-term transition from mental health hospitals to the community. -Target housing subsidies to add 107 housing vouchers for individuals with serious mental illness.

Build a trauma-informed culture of care ($1,391,865 budget request). -Develop peer support specialist positions in the state's mental health hospitals. -Provide de-escalation rooms at each of the state's mental health hospitals. -Develop a consolidated mental health/substance abuse data system.

Continue for more from the State Capitol press conference.

 

"On one hand, it looks like a significant amount of money," Hickenlooper said of the requests, but noted that government spends a great deal on a wide range of preventative measures. "We think we are going to get sufficient and significant results from this investment."

Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Department of Human Services, speaking in front of Hickenlooper.
Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Department of Human Services, speaking in front of Hickenlooper.
Sam Levin

In his speech, the governor said that no single system can be fail-proof, but added, "I believe these policies will reduce the probability of bad things happening to good people."

Although there are a lot of contentious debates about what factors contribute to mass shootings and how laws can work to prevent them, Hickenlooper oted that "mental illness seems to be at the heart of a lot of these issues."

He continued, "What happened in Newtown is beyond comprehension.... After Aurora, I never thought we'd see something...that would cause such deep despair."

After Aurora and in the days following the Newtown tragedy, there have been calls for a serious conversation about access to mental health in this country -- and Don Mares, director of Mental Health America of Colorado, a nonprofit group, said that this announcement is about actually taking actions.

Governor John Hickenlooper at the start of the news conference.
Governor John Hickenlooper at the start of the news conference.
Sam Levin

Plus, Mares said, "When you stand up and talk about this, it actually in a way validates that mental health is a good thing to talk about, that it's important that we're talking about it, and I think you are elevating the issue and really breaking down the stigma in ways that hasn't been done in a long time."

More from our Politics archive: "Newtown, Aurora and Columbine: Mass shootings, gun hysteria...and MK Ultra?"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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