Near the foothills of Larimer County, Laurie Stolen, the county’s Behavioral Health Project Director, points to a large, undeveloped parcel.
“The county owns like 320 acres right here on this plot of land,” she said.
This is where Larimer County will build a new $25 million treatment and detox facility. It became possible after voters passed a quarter-cent sales tax hike that raises $15 million a year. Stolen said that will pay for the building and a variety of services.
“I absolutely think that this will save lives,” said Stolen.
In a state marked by its grim suicide and mental illness statistics, Larimer County faces many harsh realities. The county has one of the state’s highest suicide rates. Ninety percent of county jail inmates have substance abuse problems.
The county could save millions if people just got treatment, Stolen said.
"Mental illness and substance abuse have been talked about at a high enough level that people are starting to understand that these are true chronic health issues and that we need to do more,” Stolen said.
Eleven cities and counties had tax measures on the 2018 ballot relating to mental health. Some say that’s a record for Colorado. All but one passed.
The strategy in Larimer County hinged on a detail-oriented campaign, Stolen said.
“We went on a very strong and very broad and very robust year and a half public awareness campaign reaching all corners of the county,” she said.
Two years ago, a similar proposal narrowly failed. But this time around, proponents told voters specifically where the money would go. The campaign also stressed that while treatment works and recovery is possible, those victories are not free. Advocates also described the costs of mental illness in lost earnings, absenteeism and reduced productivity.
Stolen showed off campaign literature that highlighted stats, including how every dollar spent on addiction treatment brings $4 to $7 dollars in via reduced health, crime and criminal justice costs. “Being a wise steward of taxpayer dollars, we know that we will have a very strong return on investment for investing in treatment services,” Stolen said.
In the end, 62 percent voted yes.
The successful measure in Larimer County follows a trend in increased mental health awareness nationwide.
“The major organ of the body that we’re starting to pay more attention to is the brain. And mental illness and the addictions are brain diseases,” said Fred Garcia, a campaign volunteer and behavioral health consultant. Garcia served in the Clinton administration as deputy director of National Drug Control Policy.
Mental health services in the state were once better funded, but money started to dry up after voters passed tax limits in the 90s, he said.
“Due to TABOR, I think we have slipped a lot during the last 20 years,” Garcia said.
This year, statewide ballot measures to raise taxes for transportation and education failed. But Andrew Romanoff, President and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, said local mental health-related measures fared better.
"I'd say this is a watershed moment,” Romanoff said. “I can't remember a time when so many communities went to the ballot to say ‘please help us address mental health.’"
Mental health-related tax increases passed in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer, Pitkin, San Miguel and Summit counties. Some focused more on treatment and prevention. The revenue sources include marijuana taxes, mill levies and sales taxes.
“When you look across the state, what you see is a lot of communities stepping up and saying, ‘We need to address this crisis,’” Romanoff said. “It’s much cheaper to prevent or treat mental illness than to ignore it or to criminalize it.”
Many voters backed local initiatives because they know someone who has struggled, Romanoff said.
Eric Bowers was one of many people who made their personal stories public. He supported the Caring 4 Denver campaign by talking openly about his struggles with addiction, PTSD and a lack of treatment options.
“It’s hugely emotional to see all the support from everybody showing that they want to save lives,” Bowers said.
Denver voters approved the Caring 4 Denver initiative by nearly 70 percent. The measure will generate $45 million a year, for a decade. Bowers was elated it passed, and said the results tell the story.
“To see that people see us as more than just addicts. To know that people see us as humans who want help and need help as well,” he said. “Man, I didn’t think people cared that much.”