Summit County could be leader in fight against mental illness, says president of Mental Health Colorado

By Jack Queen

Last year, a record 13 people died of suicide in Summit County, which translates to a rate three times higher than the national average.

That disturbing reality has caught the attention of local officials and advocacy groups, who are working to improve access to care and change the way people think about mental illness.

That energy has contributed to some tangible results, including a recent announcement by the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health that a crisis-stabilization unit will soon be coming to Summit County.

Last week, the OBH came to Frisco as part of its statewide listening tour, hosting a crowd of around 50 to learn what is and isn’t working for mental health care in the High Country.

Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of advocacy group Mental Health Colorado, was on hand to facilitate the conversation. The Summit Daily caught up with him after the meeting, which came just ahead of Colorado Mental Illness Awareness Week beginning on Oct. 1.

Romanoff said he thinks that while state-level efforts to improve access to care have been making progress, local communities could become a new vanguard in tackling the problems of suicide and mental illness. Summit County, he said, is well positioned to be a leader.

Summit Daily News: The Office of Behavioral Health was in town to listen. What did they hear?

Andrew Romanoff: We certainly heard about the shortage of mental health professionals. It’s obviously expensive to live here, and that makes it difficult to attract providers. And there will be a new crisis stabilization unit thanks to (Senate Bill 207), but even if that’s here, if you need care you may end up having to go east or west or drive to Denver in most cases. The fact that there is a psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction is really cold comfort if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis here.

SDN: What are some of the statewide trends in improving mental health care?

AR: There’s a move in the state to integrate mental health in the primary care system so that instead of having to go to a doctor or a nurse to treat your body and some other agency to treat your brain, we ought to be parking those sorts of services in the same building … right now there’s a very antiquated distinction between mental and physical health, which maybe made sense once upon a time when people didn’t understand where mental illness came from. But now I think science has shown that most forms of mental illness have some kind of physiological and biochemical basis. And so ending this silo effect is more consistent with science, and frankly, helps to end some of the stigma so you’re not being singled out for brain disease in a way you wouldn’t be for lung disease or heart disease or some other malfunctioning organ.

SDN: What are some of the barriers to care that are more unique to rural areas like Summit County?

AR: Anecdotally we’ve heard that in small towns the shame of mental illness is sometimes more acute and the providers are in short supply. So you’ve got twin problems there. You don’t want to tell people, if you live in a town where everybody knows your name, you don’t want to be parked in front of a mental health agency, and you may have a harder time finding a mental health professional anyway.

The state does a biannual survey called the Colorado Health Access Survey, and it asks, “Did you need mental health care and did you get it? Why not?” And there are still 400,000 people in the state who say they needed it but didn’t get it. And when you ask them why, it turns out that sometimes it’s the cost, and I think that’s still the number one barrier … But there’s also a large number of folks who say they’re not comfortable discussing what they regard as personal problems, even with a health professional, which is not an answer you’d expect to see with respect to any other medical condition. Most people who get a bump or a lump or some other medical symptom, they wouldn’t say, “Gosh, this is a personal problem, I’m not going to talk about it with a doctor or health professional.”

SDN: What are some creative local approaches you’ve encountered?

AR: Eagle County is proposing an increase in the marijuana tax on the November ballot that will go toward mental health and substance abuse services. They have unanimous support from their commissioners, they’ve got law enforcement, they’ve got educators, so they have a pretty broad coalition. It’s a tax that gets phased in on the sale and production of recreational marijuana, and I think they’re dedicating the first 1.2 million dollars to those services.

I think increasingly the battle for the health care will turn to the local front, which is not a bad thing. Most folks trust their local government more than they trust the state or the federal government … we’re supportive of these efforts especially if they have local buy in, which the Eagle County measure does.

SDN: Are you hopeful that the state can find a way forward despite all of the challenges that remain?

AR: Colorado I think is small enough and certainly affluent enough and highly educated enough that we could figure this out. We could become the national leader in the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance abuse disorders. So that’s sort of driving me. What’s the strategy look like that would put our state on the map and make us the national model?

A couple of people at the meeting said, “What if Summit County were the leader in Colorado? We’re not immune to any of these problems. In fact we have in some cases more challenges than other places.”

So I think there’s a real hunger for leadership, and Summit County is providing some of that and could do even more.

This article originally appeared in the Summit Daily.