Mental health across the US is worsening. Far too often folks aren’t receiving adequate care until it’s too late, causing many to become involved in the criminal justice system. Roughly 33% of those incarcerated in the Colorado Department of Corrections system have mental health needs and 22% of that population are facing serious mental health illnesses. Additionally, we are only beginning to truly understand the extreme impact of COVID-19 on mental health. In 2020, calls and texts to Colorado Crisis Services increased 55% and fatal drug overdoses increased by 59%. It’s imperative that we use every tool to address this mental health crisis.
Youth Mental Health.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among Coloradans ages 10 to 24. Only about 20% of youth who have a mental illness with severe impairment receive care. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the situation. From January to April 2021, emergency departments have seen a 70% increase in youth behavioral health visits. This massive spike has completely overwhelmed behavioral health services across the state causing Children’s Hospital Colorado to declare a pediatric mental health state of emergency.
Leslie has fought to increase access to mental health treatment for youth through legislation [HB18-1094] and through grant funding via Caring for Denver, a foundation she championed that raises $35 million annually for mental health and substance abuse treatment and services for children and adults.
There is still so much to be accomplished in this area. Leslie believes we must address the school to prison pipeline that criminalizes mental and behavioral health among youth. 120,082 Colorado students are in schools with police but no school psychologist and 148,064 Colorado students are in schools with police but no school social worker. In Denver, only 1.5% of Denver Public Schools students attend schools that are fully staffed with mental health professionals.
Leslie believes that every school in the state should be centered around meeting the full range of students’ intellectual, social, emotional, physical, psychological, and moral development needs in a way that promotes community health, wellness, and equity. Divesting from law enforcement strategies in schools and reinvesting those resources into holistic systems of care for students will promote wellness and safety for all. Lesllie will continue working with advocates, hospitals, schools, community service centers, and more to create and fund integrated, multi-faceted, systems of care to increase access to mental health services for youth.
Our jails and prisons have become de facto mental health institutions and drug and alcohol rehab centers. 20% of inmates in the Denver County Jail have been diagnosed with mental illness -- the numbers are even higher in state prisons with 30% diagnosed. We must reverse this reliance and instead invest dollars to help people deal with these serious issues before they morph into criminal behavior.
Leslie has passed a number of bills addressing substance misuse and mental health in the criminal justice system. This includes legislation that requires correctional facilities to provide opioid agonist and opioid antagonists, creates safe stations that allow folks to dispose of controlled substances without being subject to arrest, mandates that the DOC and county jails ensure that continuity of care is provided prior to an inmate’s release, encourages record sealing, increases diversion programming, and increases community resources for those reentering into society [HB20-1017].
Lastly, Leslie advocates for increasing support for crime survivors. Leslie works to increase survivor’s access to support services including creating the Community Crime Survivors Grant Program [HB18-1409]. Leslie will continue advocating for mental health support services for those who come in contact with the criminal justice system and those who survive crime.
Colorado has the highest rate of deaths by overdose in the country. This is seen throughout all of Colorado, both urban and rural. Some counties, like Arapahoe, have seen overdose deaths double within the past fifteen years. In 2019, Black Coloradans had the highest rate of death from drug overdose (25.5 deaths due to overdose per 100,000 people), which is 18% higher than nationwide averages.
Leslie has worked to combat these horrific trends by expanding treatment programs [SB19-227]; increasing access to opiate antagonist [SB19-227]; allocating funds to study opioid and other substance use disorders [SB20-028]; requiring health coverage for alternative treatments to opioids, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, chiropractic visits, and acupuncture [HB21-1276]; and mandating continued education concerning opioids for physicians and physician assistance in order to renew their license [HB21-1276].
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated substance misuse across the country. From April 2020-April 2021 more than 100,000 Americans died of overdoses, up almost 30% from 78,000 the prior year. 10 states saw increases of 40% or more, including Colorado. Leslie will continue fighting for policies that truly address addiction by increasing access to treatment, funding addiction research, investing in evidence based harm reduction interventions, and more.