In Aspen, Andrew Romanoff shines light on mental illness

Andrew Romanoff is on a mission to put mental illness on par with cancer.

The former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives and current mental health advocate said Monday that just 40 percent of Coloradans with a mental illness receive treatment for it.

“What if only 40 percent of Americans with cancer got treatment?” Romanoff said during a presentation at Colorado Mountain College in Aspen. “There would be a huge outcry.”

In general, 4 to 5 percent of the population suffer from a serious mental illness, which translates to between 200,000 and 250,000 people in Colorado, he said. Take into account any form of mental illness — including substance abuse — and that number rises to between 20 and 25 percent of the population, or about 1 million people, Romanoff said.

In Pitkin County, with a population of about 17,000, those numbers translate to roughly 680 people with a serious mental illness and about 3,800 with some form of mental illness, he said.

“This is not some exotic disease confined to a tiny part of the population,” Romanoff said.

According to a recent survey, 442,000 Coloradans said they suffered from a mental illness but did not receive treatment for it, he said. A majority of respondents cited a lack of insurance as the main reason for not receiving mental health care, though more than 50 percent also said such care was unaffordable.

Others said mental health care was unavailable where they lived or they were unwilling to pursue it, Romanoff said.

“The outcomes (of this) are not good,” he said.

For example, those with a serious mental illness live an average of 25 years less than those without it, Romanoff said.

“That’s a staggering statistic,” he said. “That means they’re living about as long as an American 100 years ago.”

Mental illness can exacerbate physical problems, which also go untreated. It can lead to homelessness, prison or suicide. And contrary to media reports that often seize on violence perpetrated by the mentally ill, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of crime, Romanoff said.

Then there’s the stigma.

Romanoff said he recently separated his shoulder skiing and a doctor told him to wear a sling to aid the healing process.

“No one said my shoulder was a character flaw,” he said. “No one said it was a figment of my imagination.”

And while Romanoff acknowledged that many people with mental illnesses resist treatment or don’t think they need it, others are ashamed.

He told the story of his cousin, who moved to Colorado to work on his campaigns — Romanoff served in the Colorado House from 2001 to 2009 — and ended up staying and making a life here.

“We were very close,” he said.

But she never told anyone she was suffering from severe depression. Instead, while Romanoff was celebrating New Year’s Day with her and her parents in 2015, “my little cousin walked into the backyard and shot herself,” he said.

Her suicide note said she loved her parents and him, that there was nothing they could have done and that she was in a better place, Romanoff said. At the end of the note, however, she asked for a favor.

“Please tell people it was a car accident,” Romanoff said she wrote. “We debated that for about 60 seconds. We couldn’t think of a way to honor that.”

A person commits suicide every 13 minutes in America, he said.

“This is a war we can win,” Romanoff said. “This is treatable.”

Romanoff presented several strategies to combat mental illness and the current state of mental health care.

The first and most important thing to do is introduce prevention and early intervention programs in schools, he said. Those programs should include universal mental health care screenings and in-house therapists, he said.

And while that might be expensive, the investment leads to higher test scores, better students and fewer disciplinary problems, Romanoff said.

“It’s one of the biggest investments we can make,” he said.

Next, mental health care should be integrated into the country’s primary care model rather than referring someone to a psychiatric hospital across town and stigmatizing them, Romanoff said. Also, insurance must cover mental health care and mental health care must be as accessible and available as physical health care.

In other words, cancer and diabetes need to equal depression and bipolar disorder.

Romanoff urged people to call their legislators and voice support for mental health care programs and bills. He urged people who have been denied mental health care to go to his organization’s website — http://www.mentalhealthcolorado.org — and take a survey so he can present the data to the state.

“This is probably the most important domestic policy issue in the country,” Romanoff said.

See the article in the Aspen Times.