OPINION: Mental Health, and a Nation on Edge

March 17, 2021

By Spencer Swalm, with contributions from Moe Keller

Originally appeared in the Pagosa Daily Post

In the best of times, people suffering from a mental health condition often feel like latter day lepers, wandering the world, silently crying, “Unclean! Unclean!”

But these aren’t the best of times. In an age of COVID, widespread civil unrest, and a grim economic outlook, even those among us considered “normal” are stressed. According to a recent University of Chicago report, a majority of Americans age 18 to 34-56%-report that they’ve occasionally felt isolated as the events of the difficult year of 2020 came down around their ears. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that one in five Americans experience a mental health condition in a normal year.

Despite the best efforts of advocates, mental health disorders often still come with a generous helping of shame. I know. As a young man, I suffered a bipolar break that resulted in my being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Upon release, I promptly ducked into the “closet” and quit taking the medication that had helped stabilize me.

In the decades that followed, I enjoyed many of the trappings of success. I married. Was blessed with three children. Had some success in the business world. Even served eight years in the Colorado Legislature.

But the wild mood swings of bipolar disorder continued to periodically haunt me. In a matter of a few short days, I could go from a feeling of reckless invincibility. To seeing suicide as a perfectly rational choice. Sometimes, I look back fondly on those manic episodes of a dozen years ago — the seemingly inexhaustible energy and flashes of brilliance.

But I also remember what came next: the deep, dark depression. The vile, obscene curses I called down on myself. I carefully plotted where to vanish into the foothills west of Denver with a gun.  But God mercifully pulled me back each time I crept up and peered into the abyss.

If we who suffer from such afflictions are very lucky, there’s an incident that convinces us to get our minds right, and get help. Was it when I flipped a plate across the kitchen, frisbee like, where it shattered at my terrified wife’s feet? Or was it the night when our two daughters confronted me at home and asked me, “Dad, what’s wrong with you?” I can’t remember exactly what I’d done. But I’ll never forget the stricken look in their eyes.

At times, I felt utterly alone. But I wasn’t. In fact, far from it. According to the National Alliance, nearly 7 million persons are afflicted with bipolar disorder.

Fortunately, there was psychiatrist whose low-key approach worked for me and my long suffering wife. He put me on the pills that I now take every night before I lay me down to sleep, and pray those meds my soul to keep. And they do a pretty good job.

What troubles me now are the millions of people who have stories similar to mine… but without the happy ending. They’re still in the throes of what can literally be a life or death struggle. But why don’t they do something about it?

Of course, there are any number of things that might prevent a person from getting the help they need. Expense. Lack of knowledge about where to turn. Shame. All potentially significant barriers for a person with a mental health condition.

And that’s where a program that’s a relatively recent innovation can help. Known as “Peer Support Specialists,” these are individuals who — like me — have “lived experience” with a mental health condition, and who then use that experience to help others with similar struggles — in a way that solutions which rely on high-powered, professional training simply can’t replicate.

Peer Support Specialists are a therapeutic strategy recognized by the US Department of Health and Human Services since 2007. It is now being employed in over 42 states, including Colorado. Training for Colorado’s Peer Support Specialist program is typical for what is used nation-wide: a 73 hour curriculum covering practice guidelines, core competencies, and ethics. Based on their personal experiences, Peer Support Coaches work with clients in areas such as emotional support, helping craft treatment plans with providers, and accessing recovery resources that are often complex and bewildering.

But perhaps the most important asset Peer Support Coaches bring to the table is hope. They provide living, up close proof that recovery and a better life is possible. And that cowering in the closet is a recipe for disaster, rather than a strategy for successfully jousting with mental hobgoblins. The program also brings to bear the common sense notion that one of the best ways to help yourself is to help someone else.

To learn more, go to National Certified Peer Specialist (NCPS) Certification.

This legislative session, State Senator Moe Keller, Mental Health Colorado, and bi-partisan bill sponsors introduced House Bill 21-1021 to significantly alleviate the workforce gap through peer support services.

Over the last year our homeland has been tested in ways almost without precedent. The incalculable sorrow of 400,000 deaths from COVID. Countless jobs lost to the pandemic. An estimated $16 trillion hit to the economy. Civil unrest that has left few of the nation’s urban centers unscarred. A bitterly contentious election.

But behind each of those bleak statistics there are flesh and blood people whose dreams, hopes and, perhaps, even a loved one, that have been swept away. Leaving a person whose life will never be the same.

However, the American people are resilient. They’ve demonstrated that time and again. We’re confident that this time will, in the end, be no different. They’ll pick themselves up and dust themselves off. And then help pick up their neighbors. Just like they always do.

And get back to making the America what she’s always been: “the City on a Hill.”

Senator Moe Keller (D) served 16 years in the Colorado Legislature. She is known for her work with the mental health community, including an instrumental role in crafting Colorado’s Peer Support program.  Representative Spencer Swalm (R) retired after serving 8 years in the Colorado Legislature. He was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital when in his early 20s.