BY FRED MIKLIN
When the connection of mental health and gun violence is discussed, the public, particularly in Colorado, understandably tends to focus on mass shootings. It is unimaginable that a person who is mentally fit would commit such a crime and our state has seen far too many examples. Still, the majority of deaths from gun violence are from suicide, a different but no less a mental illness.
Last month the American Psychiatric Association released data showing that there were 39,000 deaths from firearms in 2016. Nearly two-thirds of those deaths were suicides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Colorado 47th in deaths from cancer and 48th in deaths from heart disease but an alarming ninth in deaths from suicide.
Earlier this month, state Rep. Meg Froelich held a town hall meeting about mental health at Greenwood Village City Hall, where she served on city council from 2003 to 2007. Leading the discussion was former state Sen. Maryanne “Moe” Keller, who now serves as director of advocacy for Mental Health Colorado. She told the citizens who attended, all of whom were women, that “mental health and substance abuse disorders are the only conditions where we wait until stage 4 to treat the illness. We spend $1 billion per year in Colorado by the time we act on the problem.” She went on, “Now one-third of inmates in Colorado prisons have a mental illness.” Keller said that fewer and fewer hospitals have mental health units because they aren’t profitable. On the positive side, she noted that in 2018 the state Legislature allocated $3.5 million for community transition specialists. Their job is to work with families and mental health patients to help them transition back to their communities when leaving hospitals after having mental health treatment, a connection in the system that was sorely needed.
Keller made an important point about medicine for mental health patients. She said that in Europe they now use injectable medicine instead of pills because these patients are known to be noncompliant. Once patients “feel better” they often stop taking their medications.
Panelist Dr. Lacey Beruman talked about what happens in hospital emergency rooms when the mentally ill come in to be treated. Emergency physicians often lack training in drugs for mental illness, leading to incorrect treatment decisions.
The difficulty of recognizing mental health issues in children and adolescents was discussed by Dr. Kym Spring Thompson, a Denver psychologist who treats children and adults. She said, “By the time I treated adults for the first time, I could see the struggles that they had suffered earlier in their lives. I now treat children as young as pre-school. Parents of younger children are open to feedback and help with a child who is struggling. Early support for families is so important.” Several people attending the meeting shared about the challenges of mental health issues they or immediate family members suffered as children or adolescents without the benefit of diagnosis or treatment.
In November, Denver voters decided to attack the problem directly by approving a 0.25 percent sales tax (25 cents on a $100 purchase) to fund the treatment of mental illness and addiction through treatment centers and therapy. It is hoped that this resource will reduce the number of individuals with mental disease or addiction who end up in jail or prison. This dedicated revenue stream is expected to produce $45 million annually. One of the driving forces that contributed to the yes vote by 68 percent of Denver voters, is our state’s ranking of 29th in mental-health spending by Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit founded in 1909 dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness.
The issue of mental health is strongly related to the support for HB 19-1177, the proposed Extreme Risk Protection Order, currently being considered in the Colorado legislature. Opposition to the law, strong and vocal, is largely for entirely different reasons, related to very credible questions about the Second Amendment and due process for gun-owners.
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