Guest Columns

MARES: OUR VISION FOR A HEALTHIER COLORADO IS POSSIBLE

60 years of partnering for mental health in Colorado

The Colorado Statesman

In 1953 a diverse group of concerned Coloradans, among them a Denver city attorney, a Greeley professor and a Pueblo psychiatrist, banded together to change their state for the better. These men and women were the parents and siblings of people who were forced into the shadows of society because they had been diagnosed with mental health disorders. They had firsthand experience of the inhumane treatment of people with mental illness who had been committed to Colorado’s state mental hospital, and saw how easily the policies that governed such practices were ignored by lawmakers and the voting public.

The science of mental health had advanced faster than public policy, and Colorado was further behind than most states. Improving the lives of people with mental health problems demanded broad-reaching changes, including reforms that would require tremendous political will and public investment. These concerned Coloradans resolved to reach across lines of political party, religion, profession and geography to do what many considered a far-fetched dream. In August of 1953 they founded the Colorado Association for Mental Health, marking the occasion with a ceremony presided over by Governor Stephen McNichols.

Leaders of the National Mental Health Association in Washington, D.C. travelled to Colorado for the ceremony. They brought with them the new symbol of their organization — a 300-pound bell cast just months earlier from iron chains and shackles that had once been used to hold people in “insane asylums” across the United States. An inscription on the symbol reads, “This bell shall ring out hope.”

This year, as we mark the 60th anniversary of what is now Mental Health America of Colorado, is a fitting time to reflect. When MHAC was founded there were just over 1.3 million people in Colorado, compared to over five million today, but there are some interesting parallels between 1953 and 2013. Colorado is currently engaged in a long-overdue modernization of our health care system, including a mandate on insurers to cover mental health services; to put it mildly, this effort has been the subject of some political strife. In 1953, Colorado legislators were debating whether or not to enforce a new federal law making employer contributions to health insurance plans tax deductible, with some railing against government mandates in health care. Six decades ago American soldiers were returning from a traumatizing war in Korea, and veteran suicides were on the rise. Today, thousands of soldiers and airmen are returning to Colorado as we wind down the longest wars in U.S. history; our military leaders have declared post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide the “signature wounds” of these conflicts.

These parallels remind us of how important it was for our founders to instill collaboration and partnership at the core of our mission. Our journey has never been a solitary one. Partnering with researchers and doctors from Colorado’s universities, we have worked to bring the science of mental health into law and public policy. We have joined with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce to educate businesses about the economic value of their employees’ mental health. To assist people experiencing a mental health crisis, we teamed up with emergency room nurses, law enforcement officers and information technology companies to create Metro Crisis Services, a 24-hour hotline that offers free help and guidance to thousands of Coloradans every year.

Choosing to work together is not always easy. In public policy especially, the overwhelming necessity of compromise is a way of life. We have advocated tirelessly for 60 years to expand access to health coverage, and while we’re not yet where we want to be, today Colorado is leading the nation in taking responsibility for getting covered. Physical and mental health services are still maddeningly segregated in many cases, but Colorado just got a major federal grant to study new strategies for health care integration. Our vision for a healthier Colorado is possible, but like anything that’s worthwhile, it takes time. As we work to make it a reality, we are reassured and strengthened by the connections we have made across our beautiful state, and we celebrate the progress that we have achieved — together.

As we take a moment to ponder what challenges and opportunities the next 60 years will bring, let’s list some of the achievements of the last 60 that we think are worth celebrating:

1953: The Colorado Association for Mental Health is founded with support from the Denver Area Welfare Council, Governor McNichols and KLZ-TV.

1963: President Kennedy signs the Community Mental Health Act. Colorado is the first state to receive a federal transformation grant to build capacity for community treatment; CAMH partners with the state to plan and build 25 mental health centers statewide.

1976: Colorado ends the shameful practice of permanently revoking the civil rights—the right to vote, get married, obtain a driver’s license or sign a legal contract—of individuals who have received court-ordered mental health treatment. The newly titled Mental Health Association of Colorado attends the signing ceremony with Governor Dick Lamm.

1986: MHAC develops its signature community service, the Pro Bono Counseling & Referral Program, recruiting professionals to provide free counseling to homeless, low-income and uninsured populations across the state. The program is still going strong in 2013.

1997: Colorado State Representative (now MHAC’s Vice President of Public Policy) Moe Keller passes Colorado’s first mental health and addictions treatment parity act, requiring all large-group insurance plans to offer equal coverage for mental health and physical health services.

2006: MHAC collaborates with community partners, including the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, to establish Metro Crisis Services, a 24-hour hotline providing free help and guidance to Coloradans experiencing a mental health or substance use disorder crisis.

2013: MHAC partners with Governor John Hickenlooper to add over $30 million a year in mental health funding to the state budget. Twenty million will go to the creation of a statewide coordinated behavioral health crisis response system shaped by guiding principles written by MHAC and its partners.

For information about how you can support the mission of MHAC, please contact us at policy@mhacolorado.org or 720-208-2220.

Don Mares, President & CEO of Mental Health America of Colorado, is a family member of an individual with a mental health condition. Before joining MHAC Don was a lawyer, Colorado state senator, Denver City Auditor and the Director of the Colorado Department of Employment & Labor.