Group aims to boost Coloradans’ mental health

Colorado routinely makes the list as one of the physically healthiest states in the union, but a new effort by the organization Mental Health Colorado strives to make Colorado the mentally healthiest state too.

The group’s president, former Colorado state Rep. Andrew Romanoff, said the new data dashboard that just launched on the group’s website offers Coloradans a chance to see where they stand in terms of mental health and substance abuse disorders.

“Previously you would have had to go to several dozen sources to get all this information,” said Romanoff.

The dashboard — available here — presents information including suicide rates and prevention, mental health issues, opioid overdose rates and even barriers to care. The information is sortable by county, and links to the source documents.

The results are middling. Colorado continues to rank below average for psychiatric beds per captia, and has a persistently higher rate of drug and alcohol addiction, along with a higher suicide rate.

“We’re also below the national average for funding on treatment,” Romanoff said.

Mental Health Colorado’s intent in putting out the dashboard is to reduce the stigma and increase public awareness of mental health disorders, including substance abuse disorders like those caused by the opiate epidemic. A second goal, according to Romanoff, is to hopefully “accelerate a solution” by inspiring and empowering the public, mental health organizations and government at all levels into action.

Last week Eagle County voters passed a marijuana tax measure by a nearly 3-1 margin, generating $1.2 million in new mental health funding.

“We’re trying to show that if you treat mental illness you can save lives,” said Romanoff.

In a press statement, Mental Health Colorado Research Director, Dr. Sarah Davidon said, “Our data dashboard will assess mental health and substance use issues facing children, adolescents, and adults in Colorado to inform policy decisions.”

The group estimates ​more than one million Coloradans experience a mental health or substance use disorder each year. Fewer than half get treatment.

Romanoff says the cause of improving mental health is personal for him. A cousin committed suicide on New Years Day in 2015 after struggling with mental illness.

“She hid those symptoms really well, even from us,” Romanoff said. “If she had any other condition, a bump, a lump, she wouldn’t have hid it from us, and we wouldn’t have hesitated to get her care.”

The dashboard is not without its limitations. Romanoff acknowledges that some of the studies used to compile the data are not done annually, and some rely on self reporting. Overall, he said the size of Colorado’s mental health needs are probably only conservatively reflected in the dashboard figures.

Beyond the data, the website includes a tab for individuals looking for ways to connect to local officials to advocate for change, and also a tab for people to share their personal stories of struggling with mental health — both things that Romanoff says the group hopes will spark real change for the better.

This article originally appeared in the Centennial Citizen.