By Ed Smith
"I'm here representing the largest mental health institutions in the United States--local jails and state prisons."
That was how Sheriff Grayson Robinson, of Arapahoe County in Colorado, opened his remarks Thursday at NCSL's Spring Forum session "Revisiting Mental Health Needs and Services."
"There's one sadder comment," Robinson added. "We are ill-prepared to do that service that is expected of us."
The remarks were poignant in a state that has experienced its share of tragedies, from the Columbine High School attack in 1999 to last summer's mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, that later were shown to have links to mental illness. The session also came as the Colorado legislature is considering a package of mental health bills in the wake of the movie theater shooting.
Robinson said he was hopeful that the legislation now under consideration--the $19 million package includes an expansion of crisis response, community treatment and treatment in jails--would reduce recidivism.
"If you look at the recidivism rate, it has to do with addiction and mental health. That should be a signal to all of us that we're not doing something right," Robinson said. "If we gave them more treatment in the jail, when they leave maybe there will be less chance of them coming back."
Lisa Clements, director of Colorado's Office of Behavioral Health, said Governor John Hickenlooper's commitment will make a difference.
"Now we're looking at how to get crisis response out to every Coloradan" regardless of where that person lives, their income or other circumstances.
Don Mares, CEO and president of Mental Health America of Colorado, said he believed those backing the mental health legislation in the state were committed to long term pursuit of the issue. And appropriately so, he added, since mental health issues affect one-quarter of people in the country.
"I think that it impacts us all," said Mares, a former state legislator. "It's part of being a human being. It's part of who we are."
Despite the challenge today in passing legislation addressing behavioral health issues, Mares said it's a transformation from 20 years ago when he was promoting a mental health-related legislation.
Two decades ago, for many people such legislation was "a complete waste of money." Now, he added, we're at point where "people think it's real."