Andrew Romanoff went from running the Colorado House of Representatives to leading Mental Health Colorado, spearheading a fight to tackle mental illness and to tear down barriers that prevent people from getting the help that they need.
Romanoff, the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy organization, served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 2001 to 2009 and as Speaker of the House from 2005 to 2009.
He talked about mending mental health and obstacles we face as a state during the weekly Rotary luncheon on Wednesday at the Abbey Events Center. He also shared how the devastating effects of an untreated mental illness has deeply touched his own family.
Romanoff became interested in mental health at an early age. Growing up, his mother was a social worker and worked at a state mental hospital in Ohio, and his dad was a prosecutor and later a judge.
“I have wondered ever since how many of the defendants my dad sentenced might have started out as patients in my mom’s mental hospital,” he said. “And more than that, I wondered what kind of a country condemns people with brain diseases like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, to a life like that, or sends them to an early grave, and can a country like that call itself civilized.”
Established in 1953, Mental Health Colorado aims to improve public understanding of mental illness and shape public policy so that care is accessible.
His hope is that fewer stories will end in tragedy, anguish and despair, and that more stories will end in treatment, hope and recovery.
“We want more people to recognize that mental illness is not a character flaw, and it’s not a figment of your imagination,” Romanoff said. “It’s a medical condition, and it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It’ treatable.”
In Colorado, about five percent of the population has a severe mental illness, and about 20-25 percent of the population experiences some kind of mental illness, he said.
“This is not some exotic disease that is confined to a tiny fraction of the population,” Romanoff said. “This is a set of conditions that touch every single family in Colorado, including mine.”
The symptoms of mental illness usually appear at an early age, in half of the cases by age 14, he said, and in three-quarters of the cases by age 24.
“If we are serious about making Colorado a national leader in mental health care, we’d put a much greater priority in prevention and early intervention,” he said. “We’d make sure that people are being appropriately screened and diagnosed and effectively treated before their conditions reach a crisis point.”
About 60 percent of Coloradans with a mental illness are going untreated for a number of reasons.
Romanoff’s cousin, Melissa, whom he considered a younger sister, died by suicide at age 35 nearly four years ago after suffering from a deep depression that no one knew about.
She had insurance coverage, a career and a loving family that included a social worker, medical physician, psychologist, counselor and psychiatrist.
Romanoff said she was surrounded by a family of mental health professionals, but she didn’t want anyone to know what she was going through.
“We are going to spend the rest of our lives as a family trying to figure out how we missed the signs of her mental illness, and we’ll never know,” he said. “She hid them really well.”
He said there is a suicide in America every 12 minutes — which includes 44,000 Americans (more than 1,100 in Colorado) every year.
“If another country attacked the United States and started killing Americans every 12 minutes and wiped out 44,000 of us in the course of a year, we would declare war,” he said. “In some ways, I think we are at war here, too, it’s just a war we haven’t declared. It is a war we can win.”
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger and needs medical attention, call 911. Anyone needing someone to talk to may also call 844-493-8255.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger and needs medical attention, call 911. Anyone needing someone to talk to may also call or visit:
— Call 844-493-8255 or visit www.mentalhealthcolorado.org
— Solvista Health, 24-hours, (719) 275-2351
— American Foundation for Suicide Prevention https://afsp.org
— www.metrocrisisservices.org and click “chat now” or call 800-273-8255 (TALK). (This is a FREE, EXPERIENCED, confidential 24/7 Support Line.) You can text “TALK” to 38255.
— http://mantherapy.org Man Therapy is an online resource that helps men with depression find “manly” ways to cope, with a more user-friendly platform and specific resources for first responders and veterans.
— b1.jasonfoundation.com/ An organization dedicated to the prevention of youth suicide through educational and awareness programs. Also at this site, download the free “A Friend Asks” app and keep on a smart phone as a ready resource.
— Teen Line: open 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Eastern Time, (310) 855-4673 or text “TEEN” to 839863 (8:30 p.m. – midnight ET)
— https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/offers help for veterans: This website has information on how to reach out by calling, chatting online and texting.
Carie Canterbury: 719-276-7643, email@example.com
Originally appeared in the Canon City Daily Record.