Election 2018GovernorNews

Gubernatorial candidates talk mental health, substance abuse at bipartisan forum

Author: Ernest Luning - March 24, 2018 - Updated: April 6, 2018

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Mental Health Colorado President Andrew Romanoff thanks the participants in a bipartisan gubenernatorial candidate forum on mental health and substance abuse issues Friday in Denver — Steve Barlock, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, Greg Lopez, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, former state Rep. Victor Mitchell, Doug Robinson and Erik Underwood. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

DENVER — A stage full of gubernatorial candidates agreed on the importance of addressing issues surrounding mental health and substance abuse, but some differed sharply on their approaches at a bipartisan forum devoted to the topics on Friday in Denver.

“This issue is literally a matter of life and death,” said Andrew Romanoff, president of Mental Health Colorado, the forum’s sponsor. “We have a lot of work to do. I hope the pace of our work matches the urgency of this mission.”

In an hour-long forum mostly framed by questions submitted by students from around the state, nine of the dozen Democratic and Republican candidates for governor tackled issues including housing for patients undergoing substance abuse treatment and to whether taxes should be increased to fund mental health services.

The candidates who attended the forum — Republicans Steve Barlock, Cynthia Coffman, Lew Gaiter, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson, and Democrats Mike Johnston, Donna Lynne and Erik Underwood — agreed that youth suicide has reached a crisis in the state, which has one of the highest rates in the nation. Several said a crucial step would be to make sure there’s an adult on hand in every school for children to lean on and confide in.

Robinson, who reminded the audience that suicide recently surpassed car accidents as the top cause of death for Coloradans age 10-24, pointed to the Sources of Strength suicide prevention program, which helps kids find trusted adults.

“It makes a difference in their lives,” he said. “We also have to keep our eyes wide open,” he added, noting he “fought tooth and nail” to keep the state’s Healthy Kids Colorado survey going. “We have to know what is going on.”

“We owe it to all kids in Colorado to provide leadership, to provide resources and to provide support,” said Coffman, the attorney general, who proposed establishing a “behavioral health cabinet” as governor.

In addition, she said, “We should not expect teachers to be mental health professionals, or law enforcement – let teachers teach and provide others in schools to handle these things.”

On the same topic, other candidates said the underlying causes matter.

“How did we get here?” asked Mitchell. “School shootings, suicide, the opioid epidemic? We have to do more in the public schools to get kids the help they need, but much more importantly, we need to look at the root causes.”

At another point, Mitchell said mental health treatment “is one of the few areas I think the state should be aggressively funding,” and that it shouldn’t be covered by private insurance because “you can’t predict brain chemistry.”

“There’s too much bullying going on, there’s too much name-calling,” Lopez said. “People in high school feel they don’t matter — make them realize they’re valuable. it’s not just another person, it’s an individual.”

Underwood raised a similar point from a different angle. “I think the elephant in the room is cyberbullying,” he said. “How can we take this seriously when we have a president who routinely, on a daily basis cyber-bullies people?”

In Mesa County schools, there can be a three-week wait to get an appointment with a counselor, said Johnston, a former state senator who spent much of his early career as a teacher. He argued that the surplus dollars in this year’s state budget should be dedicated to education. “Ultimately, we’re going to have to go to the ballot to undo the most destructive parts of TABOR,” he added.

Lynne, who headed Kaiser Permanente in a five-state region before being appointed lieutenant governor two years ago, made an appeal to be clear about the role the political parties play in the issue.

“Democrats have fought not only to pass the Affordable Healthcare Act but to push back against attempts to repeal the AHA,” which led to the rate of uninsured Coloradans tumble. “When you don’t have insurance,” she said, “you ignore problems, then you wind up in an emergency room.”

In a series of rapid-fire questions, all the candidates except Mitchell and Barlock said they would support efforts to strengthen current law that requires that insurance covers mental health on a par with other coverage.

Everyone said they would support enacting extreme risk protection orders, which would allow families and law enforcement to petition a court to remove access to firearms for someone threatening to harm themselves or others.

Asked whether they would endorse a state or local tax measure dedicated to mental health care, all the Democrats said they would, but just two of the Republicans agreed — Lopez and Gaiter, who said officials are putting one on the ballot in Larimer County.

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, both Democrats, didn’t attend the forum, though Polis, who was in Washington, D.C., working on the federal appropriations bill, and Kennedy, whose campaign said she was dealing with a sudden bout of the flu, sent representatives to talk about their thoughts on mental health care.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.