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U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and his Republican challenger, Joe O’Dea, vowed during a debate Tuesday to push for programs that would boost the behavioral health workforce and dispatch more therapists on 911 calls.

The forum at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus marked the first time that candidates vying to represent the state in the U.S. Senate took a debate stage to take questions exclusively on mental health.

That doesn’t mean that politics didn’t creep into the conversation. Bennet interrupted O’Dea once to slam him for not supporting the American Rescue Plan, they sparred briefly on gun laws, and O’Dea, a Denver construction company owner, hammered Bennet on crime rates, inflation and border control. They were bound to try to get in some political jabs as it was their first debate.

On their vision for mental health care

Both agreed mental health, particularly for children, is at a crisis point in Colorado and that the state has a severe shortage of residential treatment beds and mental health workers. O’Dea said he would advocate for a federal program that would make it easier for people interested in working in mental health and substance abuse treatment to get jobs in the field at the same time they work toward college degrees. Employers could help pay for their education, he said. 

Bennet touted his “Suicide and Crisis Outreach Prevention Enhancement Act,” which would promote the national crisis line and increase the number of crisis centers nationwide, as well as a white paper he wrote with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, that Bennet called a “blueprint for what mental health ought to look like.”

“We’re facing an epidemic of mental health in Colorado and across this country as a result of an economy that for 50 years has worked incredibly well for the top 10% of Americans, but almost for nobody else,” the senator said. “The opioid epidemic, on top of that, COVID, on top of that … social media.”

Bennet also co-sponsored federal legislation that led to the 988 mental health crisis hotline, which went live in July. 

O’Dea, however, said policies supported by Bennet during his 13 years in office have contributed to the mental health crisis.

“What’s happening in America is not working,” O’Dea said. “Partisanship is poisoning our country. My opponent votes with Joe Biden 90% of the time; it’s not working. Inflation is at a 40-year high; it’s not working. Crime is at an all-time high; not working. Homelessness in Colorado is rampant; it’s not working. And this we add to the list, mental health, especially for kids. It’s not working.”

O’Dea also blamed failures in the education system for the youth mental health crisis, saying he would push for federal regulation that would allow families to choose any school for their child. “Kids have to have a future, and that future starts with an education,” he said. “The closest thing to magic in the United States is school choice. Put them somewhere where they can succeed. We can get them mental health at those institutions. We need to be preventative and not reactive.”

On growing the mental health workforce

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O’Dea, who went through an apprenticeship program, said Colorado can grow its workforce of mental health and substance use counselors by encouraging businesses to hire workers as they simultaneously attend college. 

“It needs to be a partnership with business,” he said. “It needs to be a partnership with colleges. We need to treat it as an intern program so that we can have businesses help us get more people into this industry.”

Bennet pointed out that O’Dea was against the massive COVID relief bill passed by Congress that sent millions of dollars to Colorado to support workforce development, including internship programs. The American Rescue Plan provided about $600 million for Colorado to recruit and train more behavioral health workers. 

“It’s not government in the way — this is government resources being used by the public sector and the private sector,” Bennet said. “He’s quite right that we need to address that, but that’s exactly what these pieces of legislation do.” 

Bennet also brought up the state’s lack of affordable housing, which makes it difficult for workers to live in rural and mountain areas in particular. “We have no workforce housing,” he said. “And there are communities all over the state where there are no mental health workers because there is no housing.”

On substance abuse treatment

When asked how he would increase access to substance abuse treatment, O’Dea said the government hasn’t “attacked the supply side” and blamed border insecurity. He also said he would zero in on high-potency marijuana products and that he is against Proposition 122, which would decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in Colorado.

“Right now we have a border that is leaking fentanyl at record levels,” he said. “Colorado is No. 2 in drug overdoses. And the reason is because we haven’t attacked the supply side. This situation is being caused by a border that hasn’t been secured. We don’t need more drugs in our society. It’s killing our kids.”

A photo distributed by the Grand Junction Police Department shows counterfeit fentanyl pills that look like 30mg oxycodone.

The rate of increase in fentanyl deaths in Colorado from 2019 to 2021 ranked second in the country, according to Families Against Fentanyl. Colorado’s per-capita fentanyl death rate, however, ranks 33rd. 

Bennet slammed O’Dea for not answering the question, then said he supports more drug treatment in jails. “People can’t get treatment,” he said. “And it doesn’t make any sense to lock somebody up and not provide any treatment.” 

On who’s better at tackling mental health 

Bennet said he looks forward to continuing his work on the opioid crisis and amplifying incentives in the insurance system so that physical and mental health are better integrated.

“This country has been uniquely addicted to opioids compared to any other country in the world,” the senator said.  “And we haven’t yet responded to that challenge.”

He also vowed to ramp up funding for mental health beds, saying there was a “chronic shortage all over the state, especially in rural areas.”

“We are just going to have to fund it and we’re going to have to find ways to pay for it,” he said.

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But O’Dea said it’s time to “start from scratch” and stop throwing money at homelessness programs that aren’t producing results and time to focus more on mental health prevention. “We need new programs that basically address this before it’s a crisis,” he said. 

“We’ve got record inflation, record crime, record drug overdoses, out-of-control homelessness here in Colorado, and an education crisis, a mental health crisis and suicides at an all-time high. Let’s stop the reckless spending and direct it at our kids.”

Children’s Hospital mental health crisis

The forum, hosted by Healthier Colorado, Inseparable and Children’s Hospital Colorado, put the candidates on the spot to answer questions about the complex mental health system and the current state of crisis. 

Colorado has about 2,000 fewer pediatric residential treatment beds than it did about a decade ago, in part because of a major federal push to keep kids in homes instead of institutions. But as funding for residential treatment was slashed, Colorado did not build up its network of therapeutic foster homes or community mental health services. 

Today, the state has about 300 residential treatment beds. At the same time, the number of children and teens seeking emergency psychiatric treatment at Children’s Hospital in Aurora has skyrocketed. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and his Republican challenger, Joe O’Dea. (Colorado Sun photos)

This year, January-June psychiatric emergency room visits were up 88% from the same period in 2019, said Jessica Hawks, clinical director of the hospital’s pediatric mental health institute. Suicide is the leading cause of death for teens in Colorado.

“The psychiatric crisis continues,” she said. “We are just beginning to see the initial effects of how the pandemic has impacted our youth mental health. We were actually in a mental health crisis for our youth even before the pandemic. We are just fortunate that we’re now in a place where we have a national platform to really talk about these issues.” 

Zach Zaslow, interim vice president for population health and advocacy at Children’s, said the lack of residential beds means children are stuck at the hospital for longer than needed.

“Kids end up waiting in our in-patient unit for weeks, months, sometimes even over a year,” he said. “They are without their families. They are without their friends. Oftentimes, they are getting worse because they are in a restrictive setting. They should be closer to home.” 

Gov. Jared Polis and his GOP challenger Heidi Ganahl were invited to the forum but the governor declined. Other sponsors included CBS News, MindSite News, Colorado Public Radio and The Colorado Sun.

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her...