Mental Health Colorado support for decriminalizing mental health within the clinical setting of the state mental hospital

Casting police and sheriffs in the lead role for responding to the mental health needs of the population is neither appropriate, nor healthy, nor sound fiscal policy. The legacy of our society’s systematic discrimination against people with mental health needs—defaulting to law enforcement and the justice system to respond to health crises—is a wasteful misapplication of resources and yields poor health and safety outcomes at tremendous cost to individuals, communities, and the economy at large.

Mental Health Colorado recognizes model efforts to shift the country away from the mass incarceration of people with unmet health needs and toward health, prosperity, and justice for all. Our “Care Not Cuffs” campaign spotlights local heroes who are transforming society for the better, elevating them as leaders, and accelerating widespread adoption of their compassionate and sensible approaches to promoting health and safety. 

In communities all over Colorado and the nation, local heroes are shaping the landscape we’d like to see—prioritizing health promotion, disease prevention, a clinical response to mental health needs, pathways to health care for people who need them—and showing how partners in different sectors can be valuable co-advocates for realizing better health outcomes and making better use of taxpayer dollars. 

In a notable example of this local heroism, the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health announced this week very significant changes in the way safety will be prioritized in the state mental hospital in Pueblo. Rather than continuing to staff the hospital with law enforcement officers—a historical practice which exacerbates confrontation, pollutes the therapeutic environment, and heightens the risk of injuries and further criminalization of mental health—the state hospital will be removing the role of correctional officer from patient units and maintaining safety by means of Clinical Safety Specialists (CSSs).  

CSSs will be non-uniformed members of the clinical team who will promote safety by observing approved clinical standards and improving the treatment environment by establishing themselves as trusted members of the treatment team. As members of the treatment team, CSS staff will be transitioned out of the Department of Public Safety and into the Nursing Department. The Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP) Police will no longer respond to calls for service when dealing with unruly patients or patrol the campus for traffic violations. This narrowed scope for law enforcement will foster an environment that better supports patients’ progress. These changes will not reduce the emphasis on safety; however, they will ensure that the safety of patients and staff is maintained with an emphasis on therapeutic purpose, and minimizing confrontation and criminalization. 

Mental Health Colorado is committed to prioritizing Care Not Cuffs in every community, and we commend the Office of Behavioral Health for this effort to decriminalize mental health within the clinical setting of the state mental hospital.

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