july 22, 2015

James Holmes found guilty of murder; Aurora tragedy illustrates need for sweeping mental health reform

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ARLINGTON, Virginia – Almost three years from the day of the July 20, 2012 Aurora theater shooting, a Colorado jury found James Holmes guilty of murder in the first degree. The jury’s verdict marks the culmination of a trial that noted a host of failures and missed opportunities by the mental health system.

Our mental health system failed the victims in the Aurora Theater shooting and their families, and it continues to fail far too many individuals affected by severe mental illness. We have not yet learned from our mistakes.

In Colorado, and across the country, the mental health system is abandoning those with the most severe mental illnesses by closing public psychiatric beds, failing to use proven interventions like assisted outpatient treatment (AOT), and limiting services almost exclusively to those well enough to volunteer for care.

Colorado maintains a shockingly insufficient number of public psychiatric beds. A 2012 Treatment Advocacy Center report found that the state eliminated 33 percent of its public psychiatric beds from 2005-2010, leaving just 10.3 beds per 100,000 people – far below the 50-bed standard considered necessary to provide minimally adequate mental health treatment.
As a result of these failures, a seriously mentally ill person living in Colorado is four times more likely to be behind bars than in a hospital bed. A 2013 survey of 10 Colorado county jails reported that, on average, 18 percent of inmates were mentally ill. And Colorado’s suicide rate has risen to the sixth highest in the nation.

“Too often, the lack of available treatment options in Colorado means that nothing can be done for someone in need unless that person first tries to hurt himself or someone else,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. “Criminalization and an overreliance on dangerousness as the standard for care are the predictable outcomes of a starved mental health system. It is a recipe for tragedy.”

The Aurora tragedy is one of the most glaring examples of the failure of our mental health system and the price we pay for that failure.

Policy Recommendations

Restore a sufficient number of public psychiatric hospital beds to ensure individuals in crisis receive necessary medical care;

Reform state’s civil commitment laws to reduce the reliance on dangerousness as a standard for care; and

Provide timely, effective care, in order to reduce the consequences of non-treatment for individuals with a severe mental illness, their families and their communities.

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