The first step in ending Colorado’s mental health crisis could be confronting the stigma associated with the disease, a panel of experts said Wednesday.

The stigma — and the dire need to end it — dominated a Community Conversation that focused on the state’s deficient mental health care system. The forum was hosted by The Gazette and KKTV.

More than 200 people packed Studio Bee at the Pikes Peak Center for a discussion that spanned the breadth of the crisis:

Over and over, questions by readers and viewers sought advice for stemming the tide of suicides in the Pikes Peak region, for improving mental health services in schools and for making care more affordable, even as insurers balk at covering many services.

With few easy answers to such complex problems, many of the panelists urged residents to take aim at a less tangible — though all too real — facet of the crisis: the stigma of mental illness.

“It’s not that we’ve invented mental illness in the last 30 years,” said El Paso County Coroner Leon Kelly, a panelist. “We’ve had it since the beginning of human civilization. And how do we handle it? We handle it by pretending it doesn’t exist, and not talking about it.

“And how has that worked out for us?”

The conversation came amid a series of special reports by The Gazette in recent months detailing a mental health system in crisis across Colorado, with hundreds of thousands of Coloradans unable to access care in a hard-to-navigate system that’s unaffordable or inaccessible.

The Gazette found that hospital emergency rooms are the first stop for mental health crises, and that jails and state prisons have effectively become warehouses for the mentally ill.

In addition, the state has too few psychiatrists and psychiatric beds to meet demand, and many parents struggle to find help for their children — a problem that has led some to seek care in other states.

Far too often, people suffer in silence because they fear being ostracized due to a mental condition, Kelly said. Instead, people should be able to discuss their mental challenges with friends and colleagues in the same way they talk about spraining an ankle, he said.

Several panelists urged parents to become more involved in the lives of their children, before federal medical privacy laws take effect at the age of 18 that can severely limit a parent’s ability to be involved in a child’s care.

Vincent Atchity, executive director of The Equitas Project, and Rebecca Berghorst, associate medical director of children and adolescent programs at Cedar Springs Hospital, urged parents to begin inquiring about psychiatric advance directives.

Such directives are similar to medical advance directives, which direct health care providers to take certain steps when someone becomes seriously ill.

Psychiatric directives were only recently approved by Colorado lawmakers this year, and Berghorst expressed hope that parents could use them to become more involved in their child’s care after they turn 18.

Several panelists said that parents should start talking to their children about their mental well-being early in life — taking an hour every day to check in on their children, eschewing phone time for face-to-face conversations.

“It’s opening up the dialogue,” Berghorst said. “It takes one person.”

Concerns about the state’s criminal justice system and its staggering rates of mental illness in jails and prisons also dominated Wednesday’s conversation.

While some agencies — such as the Colorado Springs Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office — partner a few of their officers and deputies with mental health professionals on certain calls, the teams are overburdened, underfunded and understaffed.

”All of that is a challenge, one that I think we’re going to just have to keep working at,” said state Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.

Still, meaningful first steps to addressing the issue must start with a robust community dialogue about mental illness — one that grabs the attention of lawmakers who have the power to do something about improving some of the more systemic issues facing the state’s behavioral health care system, multiple panelists said.

”This is the kind of thing that needs to be happening everywhere,” Atchity said. “This should be a beginning and not an end to your efforts.”

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