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Opinion

Colorado is Turning a Corner on Mental Health. Services Depend on Sustained Funds | Opinion

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by Sasha Zabelski, Colorado Newsline
May 19, 2023

In 2020, a blueprint to improving behavioral health services in Colorado was formed. As a former employee of the community mental health system in Colorado, I was excited to see the potential for change for this system. And now, as a doctoral student researching issues in accessing community-based mental health services for historically underserved populations, I have connected my experience of working in the system to policy decisions being made at the state level.

During my time working within community mental health services, I frequently evaluated individuals who already ran into barriers accessing services and had reached the level of a mental health crisis. These patients were people experiencing homelessness, clients just released from jail, recent immigrants with language barriers, and families unable to find programs providing services to LGBTQ youth. I believe with the passing of House Bill 22-1278 and House Bill 23-1236, which the governor signed into law Tuesday, Colorado is moving towards reforming the system for good.

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I recently conducted an analysis of mental health policies affecting community mental health services. Colorado’s recent strides in policy align with the gaps identified in my analysis.

First, my analysis found that funding is not equally distributed among mental health agencies, leaving some smaller organizations behind. These organizations may provide specific programs that serve communities of color and provide culturally competent services. HB-1236 outlines how the Behavioral Health Administration commissioner will analyze the funds distributed among organizations to ensure an equal chance of funding. This can lead to smaller agencies providing more services and will break apart the current problematic community mental health system.

Other states have a lot to learn from Colorado.

My analysis also showed how communities of color are less likely to access community mental health services because of a lack of culturally competent therapists and not finding clinicians that look like them. Not having services specifically for communities of color is a result of organizations and policy makers not asking what these communities need. HB-1236 gives those with lived experience the opportunity to sit on an advisory board that helps make decisions around services and how they would be beneficial to their community. This explicit invitation to the table shows the commitment that Colorado has to going above and beyond what has already been done in community mental health and is directly in line with the CDC’s recommendations on how mental health services can serve communities of color. 

Many state mental health systems are not currently set up to coordinate and track mental health outcomes for underserved communities. A lack of data means that mental health systems are not held accountable for providing quality services. With the passing of HB-1236, data will be collected to track client outcomes including the use of referrals and care coordination. Data will greatly improve the information needed to help Colorado make informed policy decisions on funding programs for individuals who fall through the cracks. The hope is that collecting this data will also show the types of services that underserved communities prefer to use.

Other states have a lot to learn from Colorado. Coming from the state that has historically ranked worst for access to mental health care in the U.S., this shift in prioritizing communities that have been ignored by the mental health system and bringing money to programs that work could potentially turn Colorado residents’ mental health around.

However, sustaining the funding for this new system is a huge issue as the initial cash flow for building out the system laid out by HB-1278 relied on COVID-19 relief funds. Without sustainable funding sources for these initiatives, inequities in accessing care will continue to be a problem and impede any progress made through the transformation of Colorado’s mental health system.

If Colorado wants to be a leader in transformative community-based mental health, it needs to commit to seeing through these changes in the long-term through partnering with historically underserved populations and ensuring that continual funding sustains this system for years to come.

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Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.