March 6, 2014 Updated: March 7, 2014 at 7:19 am
Patrice Winsor's breakthrough moment never came on a psychologist's couch.
It happened while talking about her struggles against bipolar disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder with groups of fellow teens.
"Up until that point, I really didn't understand that other people were struggling with the same things that I was," Winsor said.
During a forum Thursday, she implored about 230 people to do the same thing: Talk about mental illness despite the stigma that the topic carries.
The large gathering Thursday at Colorado College's Packard Hall for a community conversation talked about the state of mental health in the Pikes Peak region, and ways to fill gaps in care.
The event marked the first of three forums over the next few months that aim for the creation of a community action plan to address mental illness.
It was organized by Food for Thought and the National Alliance on Mental Illness' local chapter, with support from The Gazette and Colorado College.
Similar initiatives are being held across the state as part of the White House's National Dialogue on Mental Health, and each initiative in Colorado will be implemented with the help of a statewide fundraiser that is trying to raise $700,000.
Panel members lamented a lack of education and awareness of the mental health issues facing the region. For parents, watching a child suffer from a mental illness can cause anxiety. For businesses, neglecting behavioral health needs can have economic consequences, said Jon Duncan, chief executive of Managed Business Solutions.
Much of it has to do with the stigma associated with conditions affecting the mind, even if neglecting those needs can erode a person's physical health as well, panel members said.
"Especially during tough economic times that we've been through and were now hopefully climbing out of," Duncan said, "employees are reticent to say 'I've have a problem,' or 'I need time off to address these mental issues that I have.'"
Winsor's plight offered a window into the struggles that teenagers face while battling a mental illness. Name a medication, Winsor said, and a psychiatrist has likely prescribed it to her. And at school, teachers dismissed her need to take tests in a room by herself as a means to cheat. And in an ironic twist, having to take those tests alone proved alienating for her.
"That's the main thing, is that education is something that can really help," Winsor said.
After the forum, about 70 people broke into small group discussions facilitated by Food for Thought - a session meant to garner input from the crowd on needs facing the community.
Some voiced a desire for more preventative services, while one woman raised concerns that the more behavioral health education is needed for emergency room doctors - often the first line of care for low-income residents and the homeless.
An increase in early childhood education proved a strong theme for many groups, and some called for more training for teachers to address mental health woes in their students.
"The stigma is because we don't get those children engaged in what is going on," said Karen McReynolds, whose 20-year-old son suffers from bipolar disorder.