Behavioral health care needs attention

In light of the recent tragic events in Connecticut, the mall shooting in Oregon, and the theater massacre in Colorado, pointed questions are being asked about this country’s approach to gun control. While this is certainly a necessary debate, it is not one that will result in swift or lasting change, as the gun lobby is one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States: “The group’s power in the halls of Congress is so evident that it is rarely challenged. ‘If word gets spread around the floor that this is an NRA-scored bill, in the past anyway, that has been that,’ said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), referring to the group’s practice of counting certain votes to rate lawmakers’ loyalty. ‘It is palpable on the floor when the message that is spread around is that the NRA is scoring this. It’s like a wave'” (Huffington Post).

So while it is doubtful that Congress will pass any legislation limiting the number or type of firearms readily available in the US, it might be more realistic and attainable to improve access to quality mental health care for all Americans who need it. Colorado has seen more than its fair share of senseless acts of violence. Yet many residents still cannot access needed care. Recent national studies show that 3 out of 10 Coloradans need treatment for mental health or Substance Use Disorder (SUD) every year.  That is more than 1.5 million people. Over 580,000 residents have a SUD, and between 550,000 and 700,000 have a mild mental health, SUD, or co-occurring condition. Nearly 450,000 residents have a moderate mental health, SUD, or co-occurring condition, and approximately 425,000 have a severe mental health, SUD, or co-occurring condition. 170,000 are adults with a severe mental illness (SMI) that substantially impairs their functioning and ability to be self-sufficient. About 100,000 of these residents also have co-occurring SUD, 125,000 live at or below the Federal Poverty Level, and 60,000 are adults with severe SUD without SMI.  More than 90,000 are children with Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) that impairs their functioning and puts their ability to live at home at risk. Nearly two-thirds of these children have low incomes, and many adolescents have SUD needs, including nearly two-thirds of those served by the Division of Youth Corrections (Advancing Colorado’s Mental Health Care).

Yet despite this level of need, it is estimated that only one in three Coloradans with a diagnosable condition receive treatment. Colorado ranked 32nd in the nation in 2007 in public sector mental health spending, and data on SUD spending shows rates in Colorado are one-third the national average (Advancing Colorado’s Mental Health Care). That is not good enough, as “much of the burden of low funding for mental Health and SUD services falls on the people living daily with such needs, as well as their families” (Advancing Colorado’s Mental Health Care). Nationally, the proportion of health care spending on SUD treatment fell from 2.1 percent of all health spending in 1986 to 1.2 percent in 2005. Mental health treatment spending fell from 7.2 percent of all health spending in 1986 to 6.1 percent in 2005 (Advancing Colorado’s Mental Health Care). The national recession has only made funding shortfalls worse.

I would love to believe that as Americans we could come together and adequately address gun violence; however, I am not idealistic enough to believe that will happen. Yet I am idealistic enough to think that we could come together to address the inadequacy of mental health care in our country, and work to fund, coordinate, and integrate mental health and SUD care so that everyone had access to quality care

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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