County in mental-health crisis?

Officials seeing a sharp spike in involuntary hospitalizations

The debate about how society should handle a perceived increase in people with mental health problems seems to be reaching critical mass, a point reinforced by a sharp jump in the number of short-term mental health “holds” being filed through the Mesa County Attorney’s Office.

The number of local short-term commitment orders for people who are not able to resolve their mental health crises after a mandatory 72-hour temporary holding period — known as M8 filings — jumped to 67 in January 2013. That’s nearly double the number filed in January 2012, Mesa County Attorney Lyle Dechant told county commissioners during a recent briefing.

“We’re not sure why, but it appears to be spiking,” Dechant said.

The filings are essentially court orders for involuntary hospitalizations, which happen after a person is determined to be “mentally ill” according to a statutory definition, and he or she is unable to overcome whatever crisis led authorities or medical staff to place the individual under the original standard three-day psychiatric hold.

“Most of (the people) go back out after 72 hours, but (sometimes) the person’s crisis isn’t resolved because it’s a longer-term mental illness,” Assistant County Attorney Angela Barnes said. “Some are very treatable by medication and they could be (released). Others are not so easily treatable.”

“But if (local mental health officials) need to turn it into a short-term hold, which can be up to 90 days, then they file some paperwork with us,” Barnes said.

Paperwork also gets filed in the local court system and with the state of Colorado. The filing sets in motion a process where an attorney then is dispatched to ascertain whether the individual will consent to the additional commitment time in order to become stabilized or contest it in court.

That happens “once or twice” a week, Barnes said, meaning she then has to prepare to go to trial, representing the people of Mesa County in the proceedings.

The number of local mental health filings aren’t just up through the first part of this year. They’ve been steadily climbing since about 2009, the county attorney’s office reported.

Mental health filings through the county attorney’s office are not just representative of people in Mesa County. Patients are often transferred here from cities and towns across western Colorado, as the area claims the only licensed mental health facilities in the entire region.

The local Colorado West facility is the only psychiatric hospital between Salt Lake City and Denver, and as such serves as a funnel for mental health cases across the region, including M8 cases.

Of the numerous M8 cases filed in January, cities of origin included Rifle, Vail, Glenwood Springs and Cedaredge, as well as the Mesa County cases.

Cases currently are scheduled before District Judge Brian Flynn, but judges rotate in terms of who will hear the M8 cases.

The M8 filings can lead to commitment of up to 90 days if a person has been found “mentally ill” according to the state’s definition: “The person has a substantial disorder of cognitive, volitional or emotional processes that grossly impairs judgment or capacity to recognize reality or control behavior.”

Further, the person must be determined to be either “a danger to self, a danger to others, or gravely disabled” according to state statute.

Dechant called the people who have M8 proceedings filed against them “seriously ill.”

“I have said that I am often stunned by the number of people in Mesa County who hear voices telling them to harm themselves, or harm someone else,” Dechant told commissioners.

Colorado West President and CEO Sharon Raggio said her organization is indeed seeing a “significant increase” in the number of people being served, especially in their outpatient programs.

“Given the tragedies in our state over the summer, as well as what happened in Connecticut at the end of last year, I think there’s greater awareness,” Raggio said. “And greater attention ... (people) saying, ‘Hey, I’m concerned about this person, that they may not be safe.’”

She added that recent proposals by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to address mental health needs statewide include building a new facility in the Denver area to handle long-term “forensic” patients. That would alleviate pressure and free up beds at the overcrowded Pueblo facility for “civil” holds like the M8 cases, Raggio said.


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