February 10, 2017 | Blog Post

Williams: We should end the practice of putting Coloradans in jail because they have a mental illness

By Jake Williams, Executive Director

This op-ed was published by The Tribune on February 7, 2017. You can find the online article here.

 

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In Colorado, we frequently throw mental health patients in jail, even though they have committed no crime, when there is no available space at an appropriate care facility.

We are 1 of only 6 states that allow this practice, and we now have an opportunity to end it and make a number of other significant strides to connect Coloradans with the mental health care they need.

By passing policy in the Colorado Legislature sprouted from a recent mental health task force, we can save and improve lives.

The practice of jailing those in need of mental health services occurs during what is known as an “M-1 hold,” which is an involuntary commitment that occurs when a person is observed to have a mental illness and appears to be a danger to themselves or others, or appears “gravely disabled.” Last year, Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed a bill that would have altered mental health hold procedure, as he had concerns regarding due process for affected individuals. The governor then created a task force to examine the issue, which recently released several policy recommendations, including one to “end the practice of confining in jail persons with mental illness who have committed no crime.”

This violation of human dignity and rights only occurs to those suffering from mental illness, not physical illness. It would be illegal to jail an innocent person because they have a concussion or broken leg.

Our public policy must be made to reflect the reality that mental and physical health is co-equal.

This is especially imperative for Colorado given that, despite our reputation for physical health, we have the 9th highest suicide rate and 6th highest rate of substance use disorders in the nation.

While perhaps every state legislator would regard this jailing practice as unjust, there may be disagreement about if and how to devote the resources needed to end it. Rural communities and health systems often lack the care facility capacity to accept patients on a mental health hold, thus resulting in patient diversion to jail. An unfunded mandate to immediately end this practice would be impractical. This issue deserves both thoughtful considerations of the stakeholders in underserved communities as well as the investment of public dollars.

Last summer, to demonstrate the lack of access to mental health services in rural Colorado, I walked with our staff and volunteers from underserved communities to the nearest place where residents could access services. It took two days and 156 miles, and we called the action “In Our Shoes.”

This legislative session, I ask our legislators to put themselves in the shoes of someone who has learned that their innocent loved one is in jail because of mental illness, instead of a place where they can get the help they need. It is time to do the right thing by ending this practice.

We can also do more to connect Coloradans with mental health services and help avoid these crisis situations. The mental health task force made additional recommendations, including steps to increase the availability of mental providers in health insurance networks, ensure that providers are fairly compensated for providing mental health treatment, and invest in the next generation of mental health care workers. The state Legislature has been presented with actionable input by a 30-member, statewide, bipartisan task force. Let’s seize this opportunity to live up to our values and make Colorado a healthier state by passing policy to improve access to mental health services.

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