Mental Health Advocacy Group Aims To Change Public Opinion, Policy In Colorado

Dec 13, 2018

The life expectancy of Americans continues to decline. This is driven in part by an increase in drug overdoses and suicides, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control. This is especially troubling in Colorado, which ranks among the top ten in suicide rates.

KUNC's Stephanie Daniel spoke with Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, an advocacy organization, to find out what can the state do to address the needs of those struggling with mental health issues.

Interview Highlights

On the state of mental health in Colorado:

Andrew Romanoff: Well, about half a million people in our state are not getting the mental health care that they need, but many of them are ending up in emergency rooms, some in jails or prisons or in cemeteries. The consequences of untreated mental illness can be catastrophic. Colorado ought to be leading the nation in this field; we're not. Until recently we ranked 43rd overall in mental health care, 48 in youth mental health. Totally unacceptable, in my view, for a state as educated and affluent as ours. We ought to be number one.

On the mission of Mental Health Colorado:

Romanoff: The organization is an advocacy group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization and we're trying to change two things.

One is public opinion. How do we help more people understand that mental illness is not a character flaw and it's not a figment of the imagination? It's a medical condition and it doesn't have to be a death sentence, it's treatable.

But the other part of our work is around public policy, trying to make sure that care is available and affordable and accessible.

On their focus during the next legislative session:

"I wish I could tell you that in a year's time we could get the suicide rate down to zero."

Romanoff: One of the bills the legislature passed creates a zero-suicide model that tries to get more training to both hospital personnel or other healthcare workers, law enforcement officers, so that they can recognize some of the signs of suicidal ideation.

The trouble is when the legislature passed that bill not long ago, it didn't provide funding. We're going back to the legislature next year to try to make sure we can actually put some funding in place.

We'd also like to see more mental health professionals in our schools because we know that kids are far more likely to get the care they need if it's available on-site, at school.

On ballot measures passing in the 2018 election:

Romanoff: I'll tell you this effort started in some ways in Eagle County about a year ago. … They proposed a tax in their case on the sale and production of recreational marijuana, a 5 percent tax that would generate about $1.2 million a year to dedicate to mental health and substance use services.

After Eagle County passed its initiative, we heard from other counties - Denver, Larimer, Summit, San Miguel - half a dozen other communities and school districts that said, 'We want to do something, we don't want to wait for Washington or the state capitol in Denver. We want to keep the money closer to home where the problem is.'

On looking forward to a year from now:

Romanoff: I've met too many families that have suffered and struggled. In my own family, I lost my closest relative to suicide because of a mental illness we didn't detect.

I wish I could tell you that in a year's time we could get the suicide rate down to zero. ... I can tell you when you're losing nearly 1,200 people a year to suicide as Colorado is, when suicide becomes the leading cause of death among adolescents as it is in the state, we ought to be doing everything we possibly can to at least put a dent in that number.