Guest Columns

MARES: BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR OUR POLICIES

Mental health issues at the state capitol: we’re working together to improve lives

Contributing Columnist

Two years ago this summer, our public policy team here at Mental Health America of Colorado sent out surveys to about 130 candidates for the state legislature. We asked them 10 questions about reducing the stigma associated with mental health, insurance coverage, the criminal justice system, and improving social determinants of mental health.

Responses to this survey showed overwhelming bipartisan support for mental health and for our organization’s public policy objectives. Now that Colorado’s 69th General Assembly has ended its second regular session, we have data illustrating how those survey responses translated into public policies. We are happy to report that, thanks in large part to the advocacy of people who experience mental health and substance use disorders, their families, and others who care for them, the past two years have included major legislative victories for mental health — and when you look at the bills, they have been solidly bipartisan.

It is not difficult to understand why our issue brings people together at the legislature and in our communities. Mental health and addiction problems are the most common chronic health conditions in the United States. At least a quarter of us in any given year, and half of us during our lifetime, will need treatment of some kind. Our mental health, like the rest of our physical health, is shaped by where we live and our experiences, and most of us will experience mental and emotional challenges as we go through life. This is a reality that transcends culture, income, geography and politics. It is one of the few things that truly unites us.

Just like any other area of public policy, we do not have all the answers for mental health and substance use disorders. Based on research and analysis of mental health policies in Colorado and other states, however, we have established with our partners a set of shared principles. These include a strong focus on prevention and wellness, expanded access to care, the integration of physical and mental health, and systems that support recovery. We are working to transform from a “sick care” system to a true health care system that promotes whole-person health and wellness. Our efforts at the Capitol include improving resources upstream, in the prevention and early detection of mental health and substance use problems. It is cheaper and more effective to protect and promote child and adolescent mental health than it is to pay for a lifetime of the consequences of delayed treatment, or none at all.

We are grateful to have partners from both parties at the legislature who have helped us move forward on long-overdue improvements enabled by Colorado’s ongoing economic recovery. In 2013 we passed two major pieces of mental health legislation. One added over $20 million a year to the budget to build a badly needed statewide mental health and substance use crisis response system. The other created and updated important definitions in Colorado’s involuntary commitment laws, and convened a task force to make recommendations on improving involuntary treatment for mental health, alcohol and drug treatment. Both of these measures passed with strong bipartisan support.

In 2014 we worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Colorado Department of Corrections on a bill to eliminate the inappropriate use of solitary confinement of inmates with mental health conditions in Colorado prisons. That measure was passed unanimously by the Senate, and passed the House 63-2. In another bipartisan vote, the legislature added nearly $8 million in the budget for parolee reentry programs — including mental health services.

Colorado experienced more suicides in 2012 than any year in our history — we have the eighth highest suicide rate in the U.S. In 2014 both houses of the legislature voted overwhelmingly to create a new commission that will take decisive action on suicide prevention by bringing together public and private resources to implement best practices.

There are some policy issues that starkly divide politicians, voters, even family members. Mental health and substance use problems bring us together because our experiences as individuals, and the heartbreak of watching a loved one deal with something beyond their control, teach us that we need to do better. Mental Health America of Colorado’s own history is proof that people, and our state, can get better when we work together for change. We look forward to working with all the members of next year’s 70th Colorado General Assembly — Democrats, Republicans and independents alike — to continue making changes that improve lives.

Don Mares is president & CEO of Mental Health America of Colorado. Before joining MHAC Mares was a lawyer, state senator, Denver City Auditor, and the Director of the Colorado Department of Employment & Labor.