J. Adrian Stanley
A leading mental health advocacy group plans to hire “regional coordinators” across the state to help identify and address issues on a local level. And the first coordinator being hired is a half-time position for the Pikes Peak Region.
Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado
, a nonprofit advocacy group that’s a branch of Mental Health America, spoke to the Independent
about the new program during a visit to the Springs. He said the new coordinator will focus on understanding barriers to mental health care, effective solutions, and changes the nonprofit can drive on public opinion and public policy.
Problems he hopes to address run the gamut. Some key ones include high suicide rates, lack of counselors in schools, and an abundance of mentally ill people in jails, prisons and living on the streets.
“If you were an alien and you landed on earth, and you noticed people were wandering the streets, or living in cardboard boxes, or sleeping on hard benches, and you turned to an earthling and said, ‘What’s wrong with those folks, or why are they living like that?’ And the person you talked to said, ‘Well, they’re sick. They have a brain disease and that’s just how we treat them.’ I think you would conclude that this is a barbaric society. And you’d be right. It’s heartbreaking.”
Romanoff says his 64-year-old organization has largely focused on legislative solutions in the past. There has been successes, for instance, insurers have to treat mental health care the same as physical health care, and at the federal level, mental health care is an “essential benefit.” The state also recently beefed up its mental health crises response system.
But, he says, on average there’s an eight-year delay between the onset of mental health symptoms, which usually show up in teenagers or young adults, and treatment of those symptoms. And changing that problem means helping schools on the ground — from assisting teachers in identifying symptoms to getting mental health counselors in schools. Diagnosed kids are roughly nine times more likely to get professional help if a counselor is in their school than if they are given a referral.
“It turns out if you’re serious about helping half a million people in this state get the mental health care they’re missing, you can’t confine that conversation to Denver,” Romanoff says.
Half of those who need mental care in Colorado don’t get it, Romanoff explains, due to everything from high copays to a lack of professionals to social stigma. The largest reason is cost of care.
The Colorado Springs Health Foundation is funding the half-time position for the Pikes Peak Area, which Romanoff is interviewing to fill. Eventually, Romanoff wants to hire full-time directors for all six regions of the state, and he’s currently looking for funding. In addition to looking for the local issues, the coordinators will recruit and manage teams of volunteers.
Romanoff says he knows there is a high cost to effectively dealing with mental health care — from asking schools to hire counselors to doubling the number of mental health inpatient beds in the state. But, he says, fixing these problems is cost-effective. “You can pay now or pay later,” he explains, “and you’ll pay more later and people will die.”