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Families Push Legislators to Tackle Mental, Substance-Use Disorders

Behavioral-health advocates are meeting with elected officials today to put a face to mental illness and substance abuse in the state. (Irais Esparza/Wikimedia Commons)
Behavioral-health advocates are meeting with elected officials today to put a face to mental illness and substance abuse in the state. (Irais Esparza/Wikimedia Commons)
March 3, 2016

DENVER - Mental Health America of Colorado is hosting its 23rd annual lobby day today in Denver.

Andrew Romanoff, the group's president and CEO, says he personally experienced the tragic consequences of untreated mental illness when he lost a cousin to suicide at the age of 35, just over a year ago.

He notes one in four Coloradans faces behavioral health challenges, and hearing from families helps politicians put a face on an issue that still carries a stigma.

"We know that more than a million Coloradans experience a mental health or substance-use disorder each year, and we also know most of them don't get treated," says Romanoff. "That's a problem for all of us, and it's a preventable problem."

Romanoff says the state is making progress. With more primary-care facilities and schools now offering behavioral health care onsite, he says it helps normalize seeking help and people don't have to make an extra trip.

According to the League of Women Voters' Colorado chapter, since the state started implementing a procedure known as screening and brief intervention (SBI), the results have been impressive.

The group estimates because substance abuse contributes to more than 70 medical conditions, SBI also brings a 400 percent return on investment each year in health and other costs and can be paid for by Medicaid.

Romanoff says people with undiagnosed mental illness frequently self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, and early screenings can save lives.

"There are plenty of efforts around the state now to provide for the early intervention and diagnosis and treatment of mental-health and substance-use disorders," Romanoff says. "They're effective, but too scarce."

He adds the biggest challenge continues to be the silence and shame associated with mental and substance-use disorders, and looks forward to the day when all Coloradans feel comfortable enough to reach out about their illness, before it's too late.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO