Former house speaker will present on mental health issues in Aspen

The head of a mental health advocacy organization currently backing a bill in the state capitol that would end the practice of holding those experiencing an acute mental health crisis in jail is speaking in Aspen on Monday to kick off a strategic planning session for local public health leaders.

Andrew Romanoff, who served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 2001 through 2009, and for his final four years as the house speaker, will give remarks during an 8 to 9:30 a.m. talk at the Aspen Colorado Mountain College campus which is open to the public. Attendees are asked to RSVP to as space is limited. The county’s newly formed public health department will close the doors after that and spend the following two days meeting with local mental health, human services and public health stakeholders to gather input and formulate policy priorities that will figure into a five-year “community health improvement plan,” said the country’s newly hired public health director Karen Koenemann.

Romanoff, who has been the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado for two years, will speak about “the landscape of mental health in Colorado, legislation and what communities are doing to address mental health across the state,” according to a county press release.

In an interview on Thursday, Romanoff said the 64-year-old organization aims to help connect the half million people in Colorado who experience mental health or substance abuse issues each year, but do not get treatment, with counseling and other services. (The organization estimates that an additional 500,000 dealing with such issues do receive treatment.) Additionally, the group works on policy, including making sure the division of insurance enforces laws on the books mandating parity in coverage of physical and mental health treatment and advocating for legislation advancing the cause.

Prevention and early intervention are among the group’s current priorities. While most people with mental health or substance abuse issues will see symptoms manifest in adolescence or early adulthood, there is typically an eight- to 10-year gap before the arrival of treatment, Romanoff said. Placing more mental health professionals in schools is a key strategy in this effort and next year’s state budget, as proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, would add 150 such personnel around the state.

“We’ve found that kids who get access to a provider at school are eight or nine times more likely to get care than if they need to go off site,” he said.

In the state capitol, where Romanoff as an elected official served on both the health and human services and criminal justice committees, the organization is also working to advance a bill that would seek to end the practice of holding those experiencing a mental health crisis in jail, even if they have committed no crime. Known as a “M-1 hold,” the practice occurs when a person can’t be placed in a mental health facility. The bill, SB17-207, would setup a pilot program with $7 million in state funds to find other options than jail for acute mental health treatment. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but still has a “journey to make,” Romanoff said.

He hopes to glean suggestions and input from local leaders when he visits Aspen, Romanoff said.

“The goal for me is to learn and listen, not just preach,” he said. “A lot of people in the room have been working on this for a lot longer than I have.”

Mental health issues have touched everyone in one way or another Romanoff said. Shortly before he took the job, his cousin, whom he described as like a “kid sister,” took her own life at a New Year’s holiday family function. The family will spend the rest of their lives wondering how they missed the symptoms, Romanoff said.

Erasing myths surrounding mental illness is key, he said, as is explaining that mental health issues are both real and treatable.

“The wall between mental health and physical health needs to come down,” he said.

Learn more at the Aspen Daily News.