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A new mental health crisis intervention program will soon be established in Denver, aiming to improve emergency services for residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The final contract for the initiative, called the START program, was unanimously approved by the Denver City Council on Monday. In total, two contracts adding to $6.1 million were passed to fund the program through the end of August 2024.

The START program will use direct service delivery and community crisis intervention to try to reduce the use of emergency services and state facilities among people with intellectual and developmental disabilities experiencing mental health problems, city officials said.

“START is a comprehensive model meant to be both proactive and preventative in terms of providing mental health services and support for folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Crystal Porter with Denver Human Services.

Hiring and training for the START program is expected to begin this fall.

The START program — which stands for Systemic, Therapeutic, Assessment, Resources and Treatment — was conceived in 1988 by Dr. Joan Beasley.

Beasley said the model helps a person’s support system understand the mental health aspects of intellectual and developmental disabilities. This is achieved by bringing coaches to teach best practices to the person, their family, their community, their aides, etc.

The START program also includes the implementation of a clinical crisis response team, which would provide 24/7 support for START participants in the case of mental health crises.

This would add to Denver's existing alternative policing efforts, including the popular STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program which sends mental health clinicians and paramedics to low-level, nonviolent emergency calls in some parts of the city.

Since the STAR program was established in June 2020, none of the over 1,600 calls have needed police intervention, city officials said. The city is currently working to expand the STAR program city-wide.

For the new START program, any Denver resident who has or is suspected to have an intellectual or developmental disability would be eligible for care, Beasley said.

“The target is people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with mental health needs,” Beasley said. “They are a very underserved population, and our experience is that 40% are from very diverse backgrounds, people who live in poverty, people of color.”

Among START participants in other cities, psychiatric hospitalizations decreased from approximately 35% to 15% after enrollment in the program and emergency room visits decreased from nearly 50% to just under 35%, according to START data.

In addition, 73% of contacts to the crisis response team have been resolved at the scene without the need for back up and 92% of START participants are able to live in their communities.

The two council-approved contracts provide $599,072 to the University System of New Hampshire to train Denver’s START team and $5,663,846 to Rocky Mountain Human Services to run Denver’s START program.

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