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GUEST COLUMN: Take steps in prevention and treatment of mental illness

By: Andrew Romanoff
April 30, 2017 Updated: April 30, 2017 at 4:05 am
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"How could anyone here be depressed?"

That was one of the questions I recently heard in a small town in Colorado. A colleague and I have been traveling throughout the state to discuss mental health and substance use disorders.

For all its beauty, of course, rural Colorado is not free from such disorders. Providers are scarce, the cost of care can be steep, and the myths that surround mental illness ("It's your own fault"; "It's all in your head"; "You can just snap out of it") can be deadly.

Dispelling those myths is the goal of Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental Health Colorado is hosting educational events in May (see mentalhealthcolorado.org/events for details).

Mental Health Colorado is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Our mission: to make Colorado a national leader in the prevention and treatment of mental illness.

We're not there yet.

Each year, more than 1 million Coloradans experience a mental health or substance use disorder; only half obtain treatment. A shortage of care contributes to losses in productivity and increases in hospitalization, incarceration and suicide.

How do we solve this crisis? We can start by recognizing that mental illness is a medical condition, not a character flaw or a figment of the imagination. Those who face a mental health or substance use disorder merit the same respect as anyone else.

Unlike most diseases, however, mental illness still elicits discrimination and shame. According to the Colorado Health Access Survey, nearly 28 percent of Coloradans who did not get the mental health care they needed said they "were concerned about what would happen if someone found out," and more than 40 percent said they "did not feel comfortable talking about personal problems with a health professional."

Those aren't the only obstacles, of course. Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans lack insurance, can't find providers or can't afford treatment. We're working with policymakers, the public and the press to break through those barriers as well.

Here are three steps you can take right now:

- Get screened. You can assess your mental health by completing a free, confidential questionnaire (mentalhealthcolorado.org/screenings). Our online screenings cover depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and other disorders. Each questionnaire is followed by a set of suggestions and resources.

- Share your story. If you have a mental health or substance use disorder, or care for someone who does, we want to hear from you (mentalhealthcolorado.org/story-submission). Describing your journey is one of the most powerful ways to demystify mental illness.

- Join the Wave. At Mental Health Colorado, we're building a statewide network of advocates; we call it the "Brain Wave" (mentalhealthcolorado.org/take-action). We need volunteers to identify local barriers to mental health care - and drive solutions.

We know that mental illness is real and treatable. Let's make sure all Coloradans receive the services and support they deserve.

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Andrew Romanoff is president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, the state's leading advocate for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. He served as the speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

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