Hickenlooper Calls for Shift on Ritter-Era Mental Health Policy

December 19, 2012

Hickenlooper’s request is a departure from the policy of his fellow Democrat and predecessor Governor Bill Ritter

DENVER – Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, flanked by mental health care advocates, requested $18.5 million on Tuesday to prevent gun sales to mentally impaired individuals by providing treatment and improving the reporting requirements to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Hickenlooper’s request is a departure from the policy of his fellow Democrat and predecessor Governor Bill Ritter, whose 2009 budget cut services and closed mental health facilities in Colorado.

Hickenlooper’s proposal was unveiled a few days after the horrendous shooting by Adam Lanza of his mother, 20 elementary school children and six adults in Newton,Conn., and himself.

The governor reportedly began evaluating mental health reforms in July after James Holmes allegedly murdered 12 people and injured 58 others during the midnight preview of “The Dark Knight Rises” at anAuroramovie theater.

Both Lanza and Holmes allegedly suffered from mental health problems, but neither was reported to law enforcement authorities. Holmes had legally registered and obtained weapons; Lanza used firearms legally owned by his mother.

“No single plan can guarantee to stop dangerous people from doing harm to themselves or others. But we can help people from falling through the cracks,” declared Hickenlooper.

Questions remain unanswered about whether Lanza had received mental health treatment. Holmes was seeking treatment but that might have ended abruptly – days before he went on a mass killing spree and rigged his apartment with explosives.

Lanza and Holmes were each described as having extremely high intelligence – but also socially uncomfortable and introverted. Those factors alone would not indicate mental imbalance, but the question remains did either of them talk of harming themselves or others.

Hickenlooper’s plan includes:

Amending and consolidating laws by clarifying procedure and rights of individuals suffering from mental illness.

Expediting court proceedings of mentally-impaired individuals and reporting such cases toCBIthat performs background checks on those purchasing firearms in the state.

Implementing a statewide mental health crisis hotline and manning at least five 24/7 walk-in centers to help stabilize individuals.

Establishing residential facilities to help transition patients from mental health care facilities into society, and provide 107 vouchers for housing after leaving a facility.

Adding 20 beds to treat prisoners for psychiatric disorders in theDenvermetro area.

Despite the well-documented mental illness of perpetrators of two previous school shootings in Colorado, some of these mental health services were cut by Ritter.

In February 2010, Bruco Eastwood shot and seriously wounded two young girls at Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton. Eastwood, who had a history of mental illness, had illegally obtained a firearm. He was later acquitted of charges based on a plea of insanity.

In April 1999, Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold set off homemade Molotov cocktails and propane explosives at the school in Littleton, and used illegally obtained weapons to murder a teacher and 12 students, seriously wound 21 other teens, and finally kill themselves. Both Harris and Klebold had suffered from mental illness.

In 2009, Ritter cut the budget for mental health facilities in Colorado, from Fort Collins to Pueblo to Sterling to Grand Junction. When Ritter later visited the Western Slope, he was greeted by jeers from a crowd, for having completely closed the Grand Junction Regional Center for mental health.

“They protested his unconscionable actions,” recalled Tim Fenwick who writes a blog. “I ended up yelling, “Ritter stinks” as loud as I could.”

Fenwick was more outraged to learn that Ritter had cut funding for mental health facilities and yet poured $500,000 into the arts and entertainment sector.

The Joint Budget Committee will weigh the funding between now and the January 24 budget hearing, and evaluate the merits of the governor’s program goals.

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