In 2014, a local tragedy and a continued increase in suicide rates pushed the Douglas County Commissioners to take a serious look at how mental health was being managed, said Lora Thomas.
Thomas, who was elected a commissioner herself in 2016, was the county coroner from 2011 through early 2015. She recalled a “horrific” murder/suicide that, she said, could have been prevented had a struggling young man got the help he needed. Instead, the young man shot his mother, Thomas said, and chased his sisters with a gun before turning it on himself.
Thomas said that developing the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative (MHI) became a necessity. Led by Deputy County Manager Barbara Drake, MHI has turned into a program aimed at providing assistance and services for people in need of any level of mental health care intervention.
Thomas said MHI is seeing success because, through partnerships and leadership, “everyone is rowing in the same direction.”
Thomas said she has dedicated the past decade to addressing mental health needs to put Douglas County a step ahead of a crisis that has only become more prevalent in a pandemic.
In her view, a big reason MHI continues to grow and succeed is a commitment from commissioners to get involved, and to invest the money and resources required.
While similar programs are traditionally grant-funded and might not have the same budget from year to year, commissioners have consistently made funding MHI a regular line item in the county’s general fund budget.
In 2017, the county committed $286,568 to the program. In the 2021 budget, the commissioners are looking at committing just over $1 million. While some revenue is from grant funds, commissioners continue to provide MHI with funding.
Commissioners are also working beyond Douglas County to improve the state of mental health care in Colorado. Thomas is now a member of the newly established Behavioral Health Transformation Task Force subpanel.
During a Sept. 23 mental health summit, Thomas said she will join a panel of 25 lawmakers from across the state to figure out the best way to spend more than $450 million in federal funds earmarked to improve the state of mental health care in Colorado.
The task force was established this year by the state legislature via SB21-137 and its recommendations will be funded by the American Rescue Plan, enacted by the federal government.
County Commissioner Abe Laydon worked throughout the 2021 state legislative session to improve phone help lines for people struggling. Laydon has applauded the creation of the 988 mental health line, which he believes is “the most significant mental health solution promulgated in a generation.”
The national 988 line, like 911, provides a place for people contemplating suicide to call for help.
Commissioner George Teal said one of his priorities is the health and well-being of veterans. During the annual mental health summit in September, Teal, a veteran himself, said these men and women are not necessarily mentally ill, but instead, “mentally injured.”