Utilizing funding from the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in 2021 in response to the Covid pandemic, Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) in late August announced the creation of a new service called Behavioral Health Secure Transportation, which is aimed at expanding access to mobile behavioral health services.
Michelle Barnes, interim commissioner of the Behavioral Health Administration (BHA), which is running the program along with the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF), stated, “We purposefully designed and will continue to improve these programs to bring forth system changes that will allow the people of Colorado to access high-quality, timely, community-based interventions that make sense for each diverse community across the state.”
The goal of this program is to provide trained medical professionals, such as EMTs, and crisis professionals, as first responders to mental health emergencies. Otherwise, those patients would’ve been sent to the hospital taking up unnecessary beds, or even treated by police officers. This addresses concerns from police reform advocates, who point to statistics from organizations like the Treatment Advocacy Center, which found that those with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.
This expansion comes after previous mental health-related reforms made by the Polis administration. In 2019, Polis directed the Colorado Department of Human Services to create the Colorado’s Behavioral Health Task Force. Two years later, Polis signed a bill to establish a state Behavioral Health Administration, which has continued to fund programs designed to help improve the mental health of Coloradans.
Even with these reforms, Colorado’s mental health crisis has been becoming worse ever since the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2023, 29.8% of adults had reported symptoms of anxiety and/or major depressive disorder, and Colorado is currently designated as a Mental Health Care Health Professional Shortage Area (HSPA).
Despite Polis’ efforts, the numbers of mental health-related incidents, especially suicides, have been increasing. Colorado’s suicide rate is nearly double that of the average U.S. state, in both suicides by firearms and suicides by other means.