Shooting Survivors Talk Mental Health With Hickenlooper

DENVER (CN) – Seventeen-year-old Claire Davis spent eight days in the hospital after she was shot by a classmate at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo., in 2013, and she died four days before Christmas that year.

“Today is just as hard as it was five and a half years ago,” Claire’s mother, Desiree Davis, told former Colorado governor and presidential hopeful John Hickenlooper on Tuesday. “Now it’s actually harder because it’s quieted down. I have moments when I’m very reflective of our lives and Claire and it’s hard.”

Davis and her husband, along with survivors of mass shootings and others who have lost loved ones to gun violence, met with Hickenlooper at the First Baptist Church in Denver days before the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School to reflect on the need for better access to mental health treatment in the U.S.

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, left, and Michael Davis discuss mental health and gun violence at the First Baptist Church in Denver on April 16. (Amanda Pampuro/CNS)

The group talked about the importance of long-term care for victims’ families, the need to ensure that first responders have access to mental health treatment, and the broader issue of mental illness in the community.

“It is disappointing and disheartening to hear that you have to be involved in one of the worst mass murders in the country to receive mental health services,” said state Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, who lost his 27-year-old son Alex in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

Sullivan ran for office with the goal of passing a so-called red flag bill to remove guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed the red-flag extreme risk protection order into law Friday.

Coni Sanders’ father was teaching computer and business classes at Columbine High School in 1999 when he was murdered. Today she is a mental health professional and works to expand access to treatment in her community.

“Most of my clients are court-ordered to come to therapy and most of them say, ‘I wish I knew these things in high school,’ like anger management,” Sanders said.

She said there is a simple reason most people don’t seek treatment.

“Guess what the barrier is? Payment,” Sanders said. “And if they can’t afford treatment, they’re sent to jail. Guess what they don’t get there? Treatment.”

Hickenlooper was silent as he listened to the survivors’ stories. He agreed with the families that the federal government has a role to play in funding mental health treatment and in requiring universal background checks for firearms purchases.

“We’ve had 20 years to learn and I’m not sure we’re using the life experience as we should,” Hickenlooper said.

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