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Informing Policy. Advancing Health.

Four Years Later: Colorado’s Mental Health Policy Response to the Aurora Theater Shootings

First in a three-part blog series on the impact of mental health policy changes in Colorado following the Aurora theater mass shooting four years ago.

I was in Australia on July 20, 2012, studying community mental health and health psychology.

My program combined classroom time at Swinburne University with site visits to mental health centers around Melbourne. We toured the birthplace of Mental Health First Aid, studied abnormal psychology and learned about aboriginal mental health treatment.

Thousands of miles away, in the place I would later call my home, a tragedy was unfolding at the midnight showing of The Dark Night Rises. Twelve people were killed and scores of others injured. It would be the largest mass shooting in Colorado — and result in the most casualties until the Orlando nightclub shooting just last month.

Colorado considered a number of policy responses following that deadly night, some of them contentiously. Gun control debates rocked the legislature. Many people called for tightened security in public places. In the end, it was mental health policy that saw the biggest change.

Over the next two days, the Colorado Health Institute will publish two blogs delving into the impact of the mental health legislation passed in response to the events in Aurora four years ago.

The legislation — SB 13-266 — featured a $20 million investment in a statewide mental health crisis system. The system includes a 24/7 hotline, walk-in centers, crisis stabilization units, a mobile response team and respite care services. In tomorrow’s blog, we will describe the elements of the system, share preliminary data and discuss some of the challenges the system has faced so far.

Our third blog will talk about how another state — Connecticut — reacted to its own mass shooting after 20 six- and seven-year-olds and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed. Following that tragedy, Connecticut passed legislation focused on mental health screening for youth and increased funding to improve access to services. Come back to our site Wednesday to learn more.

As I sat down to write the introduction to this series, I was struck by the connection between where I was on July 20, 2012, and where I am today. That trip was at the beginning of my journey to understand the complex system serving our friends and family with behavioral health needs, which is my primary field of interest at CHI. Now, four years later, I’m in a position to analyze the changes to the system and be a part of the conversations about policies with potential for real impact.

Follow us on Twitter @cohealthinst to read the blogs when they are released. 

Policy Analyst Tamara Keeney and health policy intern Zoe Wohlgenant conducted the research and wrote the blogs for this series.