Safety net not there for Hiltner |

Safety net not there for Hiltner

When Glenwood Springs framing contractor Jeff Hiltner started hiring down-on-their-luck people to rake leaves and clean up trash around town in November, many people hailed him as a hero. His actions were generous and civic-minded, aimed at helping willing workers and beautifying the town.

But sometimes there’s more than meets the eye. Mr. Hiltner’s wholesale giveaway of cash, tools and trucks also were outward signs of his rapid descent into serious mental illness.

While his relatives turned to every agency they could think of in search of help, Mr. Hiltner’s ties to the real world broke, day by day, until he took his own life on Dec. 27.

If he had hung on a few weeks longer, he could have appeared before a magistrate this week – the soonest that the court system would respond to his former wife’s request for an emergency hearing on his mental state.

But Mr. Hiltner could not live with the demons set loose in his mind. And sadly, because his mental illness led only to acts of kindness and not violence or other crime, the system could not intervene.

Those who called Colorado West Mental Health Center in December to express serious concern for Mr. Hiltner’s well-being – including a reporter for this newspaper – were told that the agency could not take action because he had not committed a crime.

This country’s safety net for the mentally ill is loosely woven and slack, slow to envelop those who need help in a crisis.

In part, that is due to our nation’s staunch beliefs in personal freedom and individual rights. We do not want a system that would allow someone to be locked up in an institution for acting weird or being troublesome to relatives or neighbors.

And in part, the safety net fails to catch those who need help because government funding for agencies like Colorado West is slim and impermanent. For example, the agency is now pushing local governments to pay a share of the operating costs for its downtown Glenwood Springs Detox Center, now that its has lost substantial state and federal funding for the facility.

Catching the mentally ill as they fall is a tough problem. But it is tragic to see good people like Jeff Hiltner be destroyed by an illness of the mind.

We don’t pretend to have the answers.

In fact, this newspaper believes that the problem needs the attention of a variety of experts in mental illness, social services, law enforcement, civil rights and governmental finance.

We encourage dialogue on this issue among local leaders in these fields and interested community members in an effort to better understand how the system works and where people can go for help. The group would have to carefully balance personal freedom with the power to intervene before tragedy strikes.

While our society should not look to government to solve all our social problems, mental illness is one that clearly calls for more resources than most families have at hand. It is time that we decide what is the best thing to do, and what is the best way to accomplish it.

– Heather McGregor, Managing Editor

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