Mental health community energized by First Lady Ritter’s visit |

Mental health community energized by First Lady Ritter’s visit

Alexis DeLaCruz

— During Tom Gangel’s career, which has spanned four different states and nearly 30 years, he has never had the ear of a public official to talk to about mental health issues.

All that changed Tuesday when Colorado’s First Lady Jeannie Ritter spent the day in Steamboat Springs meeting with public and elected officials, private mental health care providers and consumers and hospital employees about the challenges they face in securing, providing and dealing with mental health care in rural Colorado.

Shortly after her husband Gov. Bill Ritter took office, Jeannie Ritter made it a priority to focus on accessing mental health services in Colorado.

Her interest and willingness to touch a topic that historically has been “swept under the rug” has been a breath of fresh air for mental health care officials who have long awaited the opportunity to vent their frustrations with Colorado’s mental health care system.

Gangel, director of Steamboat Mental Health, said Ritter’s efforts are moving in the right direction.

“I’m feeling really optimistic, but I realize it’s still a long row to hoe,” he said. “In light of Jeannie’s visit, the ball has started rolling in Colorado to say we’ve got to do something about the way we’re treating our folks who are disenfranchised or indigent.”

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During Tuesday’s meetings, Gangel said he heard consistent messages from the audience including the need for more funding, different mental health care policies for rural counties and increased legislation supporting mental health awareness.

Ritter acknowledged she is not an expert in the mental health arena, but that it is an area she is dedicated to improving for all Coloradans. Her recent trip to Northwest Colorado followed a similar trip to southeast Colorado.

“My hope is to see what we can put in place,” she said Tuesday. “We’ve had tremendous turnout to these community gatherings, which is empowering for me because I can go back and talk to the people in the circles I hope to run in.”

Formulas don’t fit

While some state-mandated public health formulas and templates fit all Colorado communities, those surrounding mental health do not.

“In a sense, what we have is regulations that are well-intended, but they’re one-size-fits-all, and that size is metro-size,” Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said. “Most mental health services are tailored to those larger, metropolitan areas.”

Bob White, director of Routt County’s Department of Health, agreed.

“Allow the rural areas a chance to do it themselves, and the solutions will come. That’s all it takes,” he said.

Officials cited the county’s low-density population and large geographical area as a challenge in providing services.

“What I see in a lot of rural counties is people doing nothing because the state’s requirements are so cumbersome,” he said.

White said having flexibility with requirements and state funding does not mean rural counties won’t be held accountable for outcomes, but that counties will be better equipped to tailor their services to a particular population.

“If the state could tell us what they want to see in terms of outcomes, then we as a community could decide what’s the best medicine for us,” he said.

Another challenge rural counties face in providing services is lack of funding, a common grievance across the state.

Rural counties receive less money than denser counties because of low client volume.

“Here, we might have 10 or 20 consumers suffering from a mental health issue, whereas there are thousands in a larger area. They get the money,” he said.

White said the solution is “flexible funding” or “community block grant funding,” which would give local officials leniency in planning and executing programs.

“We agree that we all want the same outcomes for a child or a person suffering from a mental health issue,” Mitsch Bush said. “However, there are other ways to get there.”

Ritter jokingly called Tuesday’s group of elected and public officials “rebels” for wanting to break away from state mandates.

“You guys are bunch of troublemakers in Routt County,” Ritter said. “But you know what? I hear you. I hear you.”

Dispelling the stigma

Although Ritter may not have a magic wand to solve the state’s mental health struggles, her mere presence and interest in encouraging people to open up and talk is doing wonders for the community.

Kathleen Regan, a retired teacher working with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome issues, said people just don’t talk about mental health.

“Mental health is a dirty word,” she said. “You just don’t talk about it.”

White echoed Regan’s statement.

“I think people are afraid to take this on because of the stigma,” he said. “That’s the greatest issue we struggle with.”

Residents living in rural counties often feel intimidated about seeking professional help or having someone recognize them in a mental health care provider’s parking lot, he said.

“Especially in the West, we’re supposed to be tough, buck up and deal with it,” he said. “The same stigma that keeps people from accessing services is the same stigma that keeps government officials or first ladies from having the courage to tackle the issues that Jeanie Ritter has demonstrated she has.”

Ritter said she often is asked why she has chosen mental health as her focus, and she always says the same thing.

“That’s why. You had to ask,” she said. “If I had come out on behalf of breast cancer research or literacy, you wouldn’t think twice. But this is an overlooked topic that communities have long rallied behind.”

Ritter’s personal background includes working as an educator with emotionally disturbed children and having an older sister diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“It’s a perfect time to have these public conversations,” she said.

Jeanne Rohner, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Colorado, said she has met with Ritter several times and has been inspired by Ritter’s dedication to the cause.

The Denver-based Mental Health America of Colorado works to improve access to mental health care, educating to reduce stigma and promoting mental health and wellness for all of Colorado.

“It’s encouraging because you didn’t hear many people talking about mental health issues the way you do now,” she said. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to do something about the issues we’re facing. I think it’s going to get everybody wanting to come to the table to figure it out.”

The next step

Ritter said she intends to continue her public outreach campaign to gain a better understanding of what Coloradans are facing with the intent to reform public policy.

“Of course, eventually, I’ll have to move toward a focus, maybe in three areas or so,” she said. “I do want to see how we can create more flexible funding for areas like (Routt County). I want to know where we are going to push up against existing policies. I think it will get easier once we have everyone on board.”

White said the Ritter administration already has been a reprieve from the budget cuts mental health care suffered under former Gov. Bill Owens’ administration.

“The last eight years were like being in a desert with no water for services,” he said. “We’ve been dying of thirst.”

White said Colorado is ranked 49th among states in providing mental health services.

“It can’t get any worse,” he said. “We really should be ashamed about the lack of investment we’ve made in mental health care.”

White, like Gangel, said he thinks better state leadership, as demonstrated by the Ritters, has the potential to change the face of mental health in Colorado.

“The Ritters have shown that they are involved, active and fiscally aware about the challenges we face,” he said. “Jeannie was unbelievably receptive.”

– To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234

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