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State Rep. Jonathan Singer fields a question from a participant in a town hall on mental health at the Longmont Public Library on Saturday. (Julia King)
State Rep. Jonathan Singer fields a question from a participant in a town hall on mental health at the Longmont Public Library on Saturday. (Julia King)

Two incidents still fresh in the minds of many made Longmont an appropriate setting for a town hall on the subject of mental illness on Saturday.

After two episodes in 2015 that occurred less than 24 hours apart — including the violent assault on Michelle Wilkins by Dynel Lane — the city made concerted efforts to improve mental health care in the area, pledging to train 2,000 community members in mental health first aid over a period of two years and organizing 10 community conversations in 2016 alone.

Five years later, those conversations are still happening.

The Longmont Public Library filled to capacity Saturday for a town hall hosted by State Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, Rep. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Longmont area, and Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette. The event’s aim was to discuss current mental health problems facing Colorado at the state and local levels, legislation being proposed this year to improve access to treatment, and resources available to those who need help.

A panel of eight mental health care professionals opened the event by introducing their work.

Panelist Phoebe Norton, who represented local clinic Mental Health Partners, described her decades working in mental health care as filled with “many rewards and many challenges.”

Norton was joined by representatives from Supporting Action for Mental Health, Boulder Valley Community Action Network, The National Association of Social Workers, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Longmont Police Department.

Singer, who chairs the state Senate’s Public Health Care and Human Services committee, followed the panel. The senator mentioned several mental health care bills that have been passed or are in progress in the Senate, among them a bill that will provide housing to mentally ill Coloradans released from prison, as well as a bill that would allow for a mental health criminal justice committee to continue in the Senate.

“We have the greatest challenges. Our suicide rates are some of the top in the nation. Our alcohol and other substance abuse rates are some of the worst in the nation,” he said.

“We have an opportunity now because we’ve recognized these things and we’ve started to destigmatize these issues to get us to a point where we can actually become the model for the nation in the services we provide to make sure that we are all better connected, that healthcare, and housing, and criminal justice, and education, and jobs are one conversation happening at one time.”

Singer also introduced Lewis, who spoke about her background as the first pharmaceutical director of Colorado Access. She mentioned two senate bills in progress she is sponsoring, one of which would provide training for educators about how to deal with mental illness.

“Colorado has one of the highest teenage suicide rates in the country. We absolutely have to have more resources for mental health. We had a plan for it last year, trying to pass Prop CC,”  Democrats’ attempt at chipping away at the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which was soundly defeated in November.

“That would have gotten us more money for education, more money for mental health, some transportation money. So if folks want this, if we want an increase in these resources, we’re going to have to generate funds to do it, because we don’t have any more general funds,” she said.

Then the audience was given the chance to take the microphone.

Izzy TenBrook, a licensed professional counselor, stood and asked Singer if the Mental Health Practitioner Act, an act that requires mental health care professionals to be licensed, would be renewed. TenBrook expressed she feels her job is being threatened by unlicensed mental health care workers who have “no baseline education or ethics code.”

Although Singer responded that “these conversations are some of the most nuanced, most important things we can do, but it’s not what we’re here to talk about today,” TenBrook was followed by most of the licensed professionals in the room wanting to discuss the issue.

“We’re in need of some guidance. Our livelihoods are being threatened,” one called out from the audience.

Others stayed focused on the issue at hand.

A local pastor stepped up and expressed her concern that religious leaders are often uneducated about how to guide those with mental illness. A mother voiced frustration that her daughter who suffers from mental illness was turned down by a local clinic. An emergency room nurse, a volunteer at a homeless shelter, and a few participants living with mental illness were among the attendees who  generated the all-inclusive discussion for which Singer had asked.

“When you hear that one out of five people will have a mental health issue in their lives, that means that any politician that doesn’t pay attention to this issue should be doing so at their own peril,” Singer said at the event.

That’s why I decided to focus this town hall on this one issue. I wanted people to understand we’re going to highlight this as a top-tier issue and make sure that, regardless of where you come from, we’re going to make sure you get the help that you need when you need it.”

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