He was 7 or 8 years old when the beatings began.
Kevin L. Barclay said he immediately went to work, getting in shape so he could punch back at his abusive father.
“There was a point where I probably could have fought him and won, but I froze,” he admitted.
Barclay, now the Western Slope executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stood with the members of the Colorado Behavioral Health Task Force and department heads who had gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday to unveil the “SEE ME” campaign.
The initiative’s website points out the contradiction between Colorado’s low unemployment and high levels of physical fitness compared with the rest of the nation, yet one in five Coloradans suffers from mental illness or substance abuse, with stigma being a key reason why people do not seek treatment.
“I have to speak to everyone, but I want to speak to the men,” Barclay said. “We are so used to ‘Buck it up.’ ‘Stand tall.’ Well, it doesn’t work.”
Gov. Jared Polis explained that the holidays could be a difficult time for those with mental illness, but it was also an opportunity to encourage check-ins with family members and friends.
“Ask how you can support your loved ones and friends. Check in with yourself,” he said. “Find things that bring you joy.”
The “SEE ME” website contains a pledge for people to speak “openly and honestly about my own experience,” an opportunity to share personal stories, and a 14-day challenge, with daily email updates for those who sign up.
Polis cited the measures the state is undertaking to make mental health care more affordable, including an impending public insurance option.
However, “SEE ME” focuses on urging personal engagement with issues of mental health, rather than a policy prescription.
Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, said that people generally feel comfortable asking others for help with physical ailments, like a broken bone. “But there’s a huge stigma if you need to ask for help because you’re depressed or having a condition or feeling suicidal,” she said.
Barnes that Colorado is the state with the sixth highest rate of teen suicides; the United Health Foundation reports that Colorado’s rate is nearly double that of the country as a whole.
This week, the Safe2Tell program reported a 30% increase in safety concerns reported anonymously from August to November compared to the same period in the last school year. Safe2Tell is a school safety program through the state Attorney General’s Office to receive and refer tips to law enforcement through app-, phone- and browser-based reporting.
Suicide threats are the largest category of Safe2Tell tips, making up 3,668 reports last year. A state legislative committee this fall advanced a proposal to ensure that Safe2Tell calls be routed through a crisis operator first.
Also Wednesday, a committee approved legislation from U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner establishing 9-8-8 as a new three-digit, national suicide hotline and veterans crisis number, creating a simpler alternative to dialing the current national lifeline number, 1-800-273-8255. The Federal Communications Commission will consider Thursday whether to enact the change.
Polis established the 25-member Behavioral Health Task Force in April. Barnes said that a subcommittee is looking at the needs of people in the criminal justice system. The state Department of Corrections reported a 7% increase between 2012 and 2017 in inmates with moderate to severe mental health issues.
“We’re looking at people that are in the justice system, whether they’re youth or adult, who have severe mental health issues — partly based on the trauma of being in the system,” Barnes said.
Douglas and Denver counties have co-responder programs in place, where mental health professionals ride along with police officers. Denver’s co-responders made contact with over 1,700 individuals in 2018 and treated many people on scene.
The task force is collecting testimony through June on subjects including behavioral health, substance use disorders, and provider needs.
“I feel like I’m holding a lot of people’s stories in my heart,” Barnes said. “Lots of boxes of Kleenex.”
A woman from Boulder told the task force that she was only able to escape abusive and mocking treatment from her psychiatrist by sending recordings to the district attorney.
“Because of this whole experience, I started smoking cigarettes, stopped leaving the house even for groceries, I’m absolutely terrified of going to a doctor of any kind now, and honestly I can’t find hope anymore,” she wrote.
“I haven’t seen the abusive doctor in months but still break down in sobbing rage when I think about what he did to me, while being the only one in a position to help me.”
Another piece of testimony, from the CEO of a Western Slope mental health center who adopted three foster sons with mental illness, said that Medicaid and private insurance do not pay enough to provide competitive mental health specialist salaries in all parts of the state.
In 2018, the State Office of Rural Health found that 22 of Colorado’s 64 counties have no licensed psychologist, and suicide rates in the northwest and mountain areas are 41% higher than the statewide average.
At the end of the news conference, Alexandra Salazar, who has schizoaffective disorder and saw her first hallucination at age 4, said that it has been a year since her last hospitalization.
She copes through her art — music, dance, singing — and studying Shakespeare.
“The worst stigma of all,” she said, “is that people feel that people like me are dangerous, when in reality, we’re just trying to get on with our life.”