Denver is teaming up with health organizations to come up with a strategic plan outlining how the city can provide resources and services to city residents in need of behavioral health treatment.
A steering committee convened late last year has been working on creating the Denver Behavioral Health Strategic Plan, which creates a roadmap that health department Deputy Executive Director Ann Cecchine-Williams said ensures every resident gets a chance to get their mental health in a “state of balance.” The city is working with Denver Health and about 20 other organizations to craft a plan that will suggest system improvements and provide a better sense of community needs with the help of experts in various fields, including experts in behavioral health. It will also make recommendations for enhancing existing programs, like the police department’s co-responder program.
The plan is being drafted at Mayor Michael Hancock’s request, according to Bob McDonald, executive director at the city’s public health department. The committee has hosted three listening sessions, with the latest meeting taking place June 7 with Mental Health Colorado. McDonald also serves as the public health administrator for Denver.
This effort is a response to what McDonald said is “one of the biggest public health challenges” in the city. He cited national figures backed by government agencies suggesting one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness.
McDonald said the plan’s behavioral health approach will have two major priorities: mental health and substance use. It will address a broad spectrum, ranging from people with mild depression to chronic illnesses like addiction to alcohol or opioids. The city recorded a record number of fatal drug overdoses in 2018, though local officials believe drug deaths are starting to level off.
“The overall goal is to develop strategies that help everyone dealing with any form in any severity with substance misuse or mental health,” McDonald said.
The plan won’t just focus on practical solutions, but address the stigma sometimes associated with seeking mental health treatment.
“People don’t want to reach out for help,” he said. “They’re afraid, don’t know how to reach out. (We) want to break down those barriers.”
The plan will include strategies for suicide and self-harm prevention. Denver last year had a nearly 20 percent increase in suicides, with the Office of the Medical Examiner recording 159 in 2018, up from 132 in 2017. The state overall has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
Denverites have a chance to weigh in on the plan through a survey available online. The committee is encouraging participation until July 17. McDonald said the city will continually check in to see how the plan’s working after it’s released and implemented.
“We want to stay connected to citizen input,” McDonald said. “We don’t want to just develop this plan with citizen input, we want to implement and monitor its success with input from citizens.”
The plan would be similar to the Opioid Response Strategic Plan released last year, though with a more specific focus on overall behavioral health. A draft of the behavioral health plan should be completed by the end of this year, McDonald said.