By Kate Fitch, CMWN Volunteer
Colorado Senate Bill 16-169 has officially been passed by both houses and sent to Governor Hickenlooper for signing, which is as appalling as it is disheartening. This bill, otherwise known as “Emergency 72-hour Mental Health Procedures,” is an absolutely outrageous attempt to band-aid the gaping wound known as “utter failure of Colorado state government.” Not only will this fail to solve problems, but it will fail while trampling all over the dignity and rights of people with mental health conditions. It is nothing more than a measure to comfort state legislators and public healthcare entities who have failed to keep their promises, and it will do nothing to actually help people experiencing psychiatric crisis. The clog in the system caused by chronic underfunding and poorly executed policy half-measures will only be made worse by this ridiculous proposal, all the while gently fanning the flames of public hysteria about the dangers of free-roaming mentally ill.
In 2013, the state of Colorado realized that it had a problem. Despite its booming population and ever-increasing suicide rate, it held its shameful place as dead last in number of inpatient psychiatric beds. People experiencing mental health crisis were routinely warehoused in overloaded emergency rooms while they waited for space to open up. They were tethered to beds and guarded by security without actually receiving any treatment, which understandably made many of them very angry. Angry patients scared the nurses, and hospitals cried out for help. One hospital owned by Centura Health was federally investigated that year for practicing “patient-dumping,” in which they discharged psychiatric patients into police custody without actually completing psychiatric evaluations. Governor Hickenlooper signed off on a $19 million project to implement a state-wide psychiatric crisis response system, and hospitals, patients, and advocates made a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, the relief never came. The state of Colorado set up 11 walk-in crisis stabilization units in a system entitled Colorado Crisis Services. Now, of course, there are some private crisis stabilization units as well, but let’s work with what the $19 million gave us. Based on 2014 census data, that’s 1 crisis stabilization unit for every 489,909 people. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t enough. We added some crisis stabilization beds, but it wasn’t anywhere near making up for the 24% decrease in inpatient beds experienced in the previous decade. The system was still clogged, people were still waiting, and emergency rooms were still overloaded. The 11 centers were a very small drop in a very big bucket, but hey, they were better than the alternatives. Public outcry about the treatment of people in psychiatric crisis quieted a bit, because we all knew that Colorado was trying. The logical move would to be keep funding this initiative, right?
Logic has apparently taken a vacation. The continued problems with system backlog that resulted from making a too-tiny step forward are not being met with larger, more confident steps forward. They are instead being met with a reactionary leap back in the opposite direction. Colorado Senate Bill 16-169 has declared that “Colorado currently lacks adequate resources to appropriately care for some individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis or psychiatric emergency.” It also declares that the solution to this lack of resources is not to come up with more resources, but to allow jails to legally hold people in psychiatric crisis who have done nothing wrong except be sick. Wait, what? Three years ago a Colorado hospital was federally investigated for dropping patients into jails because it was, you know, a serious human rights violation. Now Colorado government officials have decided to sign off on making that okay because they failed to allocate sufficient resources to the project meant to solve the problem the first time around.
Why is this considered okay? If the healthcare system was overwhelmed by droves of people with flesh-eating bacteria, we wouldn’t set up 11 flesh-eating bacteria clinics for the entire state and throw the unlucky ones into jail because we don’t know what else to do with them. They didn’t do anything wrong except get flesh-eating bacteria, and sticking them in jail certainly isn’t going to help them at least be comfortable while they’re waiting for treatment. The public would be outraged by this bill! Why aren’t they outraged when it comes to mental illness, then?
The only reason that this bill has gotten as far as it has is because people with mental illness are still considered second-class citizens. No amount of lime green wristbands and royal family lip-service is going to make up for the fact that we are insulted, degraded, and discriminated against every day from the elected officials that are supposed to represent us. We are blamed for all gun violence despite the fact that we only make up 5% of it. We are accused of being incompetent to make decisions about our own treatment. We are physically restrained just because we make people uncomfortable. Now, we are thrown into jail because we need treatment and you can’t come up with enough money to give it to us.
This bill is completely and utterly unacceptable. Instead of owning up to the fact that you have failed your constituents in solving the problem of psychiatric emergency overload, you want to discreetly sign off on throwing the overload into lock-up. I will not allow you to be discreet. Everyone needs to know that Colorado legislators have chosen to trample on the rights and dignity of the 1 in 20 who experiences a serious mental illness every single year. Colorado legislators have chosen to perpetuate lies that those 1 in 20 are dangerous, incompetent, and untrustworthy. Colorado legislators have chosen to allow innocent people to be jailed just because they are sick.