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As New York City takes aggressive approach to mental health, Colorado mother calls for similar measures

“We're fighting for our children's lives, and we're fighting for other moms and their children's lives. We're not going to be quiet, and we're not going to go away,” Sandra Sharp Dunnit said.
Homeless camp in Denver
Posted at 8:05 AM, Nov 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-30 10:05:43-05

DENVER — New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced this week his plan to allow city workers to more aggressively intervene to get people into treatment, describing "a moral obligation" to act, even if it means involuntarily hospitalizing some.

The mayor’s directive allows city workers the right to transport people to the hospital against their will if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others or are unable to care for themselves.

Adams also released an 11-point legislative agenda to address the mental health crisis in the state. The plan includes things like broadening the allowances for involuntary hospitalizations, focusing on the broader context of a person’s mental health needs and the dangers they pose to themselves and others over a longer period of time rather than just the symptoms they are presenting in the moment of contact, etc.

Sandra Sharp Dunnit supports Adams' plan and wants Colorado to consider something similar. Sharp Dunnit’s son, Drew, had his first psychotic break a year into college and has been in and out of mental health care facilities since.

Sharp Dunnit said there were times when her son was able to be stabilized, maintain a medication routine, get a job and housing and live a relatively normal life. However, the length of time that period would last started getting shorter and shorter. Then, Drew started to become violent.

Sharp Dunnit’s son attempted suicide and was able to get some help. However, he was quickly released and told to see a doctor to be prescribed medication.

Drew became more violent with his mother, she said, physically harming her at times. In those instances, Sharp Dunnit was able to have Drew put on a temporary health hold, but each time, he was released.

“So, the individuals who need treatment the most are denied this care. Yet, to get into the mental state hospital, that bar has risen so high because it is overcrowded, and so the individuals that, five years ago, would have gotten into the state mental hospital are now being denied a bed there,” Sharp Dunnit said.

Most recently, her son was able to get housing in a wellness facility, but was kicked out for not following the rules, such as bathing regularly. Sharp Dunnit said the facility told her Drew’s needs were beyond what the facility could provide, so he was released.

Four hours later, Drew spotted a dog that looked like his brother’s, hopped a fence and started playing with it. He followed the dog into the house, put on some of the homeowner’s clothes and ate their food. Police officers were called, and Drew was arrested.

“He is now looking at a potentially 26 years within DOC for breaking into a house to get food, to get clothes. Was it wrong what he did? Absolutely. But it's very common among individuals with schizophrenia,” Sharp Dunnit said.

Because of how often Drew has been in and out of hospitals and treatment facilities, and how little help he has received, Sharp Dunnit believes jail might be the best option for her son at this point because he will be taken care of to some extent.

“When I say jail is the best place, that doesn't mean jail is a good place. Jail is a horrible place. He's not getting the treatment he needs,” she said.

However, it will mean that Drew will not be a danger to himself or to others. Sharp Dunnit said she supports the New York plan because it will mean more focus on the mental health needs in the state. She would like to see Colorado implement something similar, even if it means placing her son in a mental health facility against his will.

The mother doesn’t see Colorado’s mental health crisis as a funding issue, but an issue of prioritization.

Sharp Dunnit said she has spoken to committees and task forces focused on mental health, but nothing has changed. Now, she wants action.

“We're fighting for our children's lives, and we're fighting for other moms and their children's lives. We're not going to be quiet and we're not going to go away,” she said.

Others, like Denver Homeless Out Loud, have concerns about New York’s plan and the stigma it puts on people who are experiencing homelessness.

Denver Homeless Out Loud organizer Benjamin Dunning worries the New York directive is a return to the days of criminalizing the unhoused and assuming all or most of them have mental health issues.

“The homeless community got targeted for the criminal actions of others, and then small little petty things suddenly became a big issue. They're sensationalizing it. Now they're going to go solve it by saying, 'We think you need help, and we're going to get your help whether you want it or not,'” Dunning said.

While there is a mental health component, Dunning said there is also a housing component and the state has not put enough resources into building up the infrastructure to truly address the problem.

“The solution to homelessness is housing, and the moment we start talking about drug addiction, and the moment we start talking about mental illness, we're not talking about housing,” Dunning said. “The more stable you can get someone, especially with housing, the better their options are for healing or living their best life if they are carrying along some heavy mental health issues.”

In the end, he worries the New York directive is a political stunt that criminalizes and re-stigmatizes a community that's already been marginalized.

Both Sharp Dunnit and Dunning, though, say the bottom line for Colorado is the need for more infrastructure to help those in need.