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Rep. Amabile: Colorado’s failure to address severe mental illness is a human disaster

It’s time to bring a sense of urgency and commitment to helping these individuals.

It’s time for our state to make a bold, robust investment to provide treatment to Coloradans with severe mental illness. In doing so, we can solve some of our state’s biggest and most complex problems.

We have a mental health crisis in our state. It is complicated and has developed insidiously over the decades. Chronic, widespread homelessness began to emerge in Colorado in the 1980s. Even then, we had more mental health hospital beds than we do today. That’s despite our population doubling from 3 to 6 million people.

Colorado state Rep. Judy Amabile

Yet, people can’t seem to fathom why we have a homelessness problem, why our jails are overflowing with people who are mentally ill, or what we should do about it. 

A minimum of 50 beds per 100,000 people is considered necessary to provide minimally adequate treatment for individuals with severe mental illness. In Colorado, we have about 10 beds per 100,000

People wait in our jails for treatment, getting sicker and less sane. In fact, individuals with severe mental illness are four times more likely to be incarcerated than treated. It’s terrible in every respect — it’s immoral, inhumane, and incredibly expensive.

In just the last few weeks, my office has heard from jail staff about a young man with schizophrenia who was arrested for smoking pot in public. His panic while being placed under arrest resulted in him receiving more charges. He’s been sitting in solitary confinement for 54 days and counting. His mental health condition is getting worse. There is no place for him in a state hospital and won’t be for months. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Another family was desperately trying to access help for a loved one suffering from schizophrenia. They can’t seem to get any further than a three-day hold in a hospital, with no treatment, no support services, no medications after discharge, no follow up. 

Despite his family’s pleas, he was released in a psychotic state. Twenty-four hours later, his mother was hospitalized with fractured ribs, facial lacerations, a punctured lung, and shattered nose. She was the focus of his psychosis and paranoia. 

He doesn’t remember thrashing his mother, and as I write this he is currently being held in solitary confinement. He will likely be sent to prison, untreated. His parents are broken.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you are unmoved by human suffering, then consider the many intractable costs of ignoring people with severe mental illness. I’ve received hundreds of letters from constituents who are exasperated by people who live outside. They always ask: What can we do about these people? 

Well, we have to stop doing what we’ve been doing — sending sick people to jail. We have to start providing adequate treatment that will actually turn this tide. 

Health conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar with psychosis, other psychotic disorders, co-occurring substance misuse disorder, and severe addiction must be dealt with in a specific and unique way.

When a person is in active psychosis, they are for all intents and purposes incapacitated. This doesn’t usually make them dangerous, but sometimes it does. It certainly creates confusion and desperation. It absolutely requires intervention. Right now, no one is intervening. No one but our criminal justice system. 

For many of the most severely ill, meaningful recuperation requires inpatient medical treatment. They need to be in a hospital or residential care facility to become stabilized on medication or other therapies and then transition back into society. 

Once back in their community, these patients need ongoing wrap-around services including help with medications, housing, job supports and other services. Group homes and sober living facilities are important step-down resources for recovery.

We used to have this kind of inpatient care before President Ronald Reagan implemented policies that effectively shut down mental health hospitals around the country. Community mental health centers were supposed to take over. That hasn’t worked. Residential facilities were underfunded and many have been shuttered. 

It’s now a gaping hole because it is so expensive to build the infrastructure needed. But not acting is even more costly, in so many ways.

Our failure to adequately treat these individuals has resulted in a slow-growing human disaster that many of us have become accustomed to and don’t even see anymore. We are unphased by people who are clearly very sick, begging for food on city corners, freezing to death in our parks, and languishing in our jails.

In fact, jails, emergency rooms, and shelters are our only answer right now. These are the only places where society contends with people who are suffering from severe mental illnesses. The outcomes are predictably horrific, and beyond fiscally wasteful. 

We’ve made great strides in this year’s legislative session to support Coloradans with less severe behavioral health needs. It’s time to bring this same sense of urgency and commitment to helping those with severe mental illnesses. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.  


Judy Amabile, Democrat of Boulder, represents District 13, including parts of Boulder, Clear Creek, Gilpin, Grand and Jackson counties, in the Colorado House of Representatives. She is the mother of an adult son with schizophrenia and co-occurring substance misuse disorder.


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