For the sake of Colorado’s mental health, the village must step up

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and after the last two years, most of us are well aware of the state of our mental health.

Vincent Atchity

Coloradans statewide are struggling with mental health more than ever. A 2021 Colorado Health Access Survey revealed that 38% of Coloradans over the age of 16 experienced a decline in mental health such as anxiety, depression, or loneliness, as the result of COVID-19.

At the same time, Mental Health America ranked Colorado dead last in the nation for access to care for adults with mental health needs. The combination of declining well-being and poor access to resources has our community facing a crisis from which we must not turn away.

Mental Health Colorado has been deeply engaged in supporting the recommendations of the behavioral health task force agreed by Gov. Jared Polis in 2019. Task force recommendations have resulted in a series of bills designed to fill gaps in services all over the state, most recently with the help of $450 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.

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This funding will enable us to build much-needed in-patient capacity — beds — for adults and youth. We will invest in recruiting and retaining our behavioral health workforce. We will take important steps toward decriminalizing mental health, better coordinating care and resources, and much more.

These investments won’t solve all of Colorado’s problems, or solve anyone’s problems anytime soon, but they will eventually make a meaningful difference in the lives of many.

In the meantime, how do we become more resourceful and resilient without contributing to the long wait lists for professional support?

The scarcity of mental health care in our state leaves many of us to our own devices — as if this were an earlier era in history. In an age of heightened risk for suicide and harmful substance use, we must prioritize access to care and services for those who are at greatest risk or most seriously ill.

The rest of us will have to cultivate individual, peer-to-peer support for ourselves and those around us. We must remind one another to engage in practices that contribute to well-being. Be more proactive about reaching out to somebody who hasn’t been their usual self. Make inquiries. Offer companionship. Offer to help someone access resources—whether it be transportation, research, or caring communities.

Earlier this year, Mental Health Colorado launched a campaign to surface the real-life ways people around Colorado care for themselves and find joy, strength, or peace. The “What’s Your Peace?” campaign is meant to get people thinking about the daily steps that bolster our mental well-being, to carve out time for them with more intention, and to expand our collective toolkit by sharing them with one another.

We received “peaces” from all over the state. It was no surprise to hear that hiking, walking, snowboarding, and fly-fishing bring many Coloradans peace. We also heard from knitters, bird-watchers, dog-snugglers, and home cooks about their self-care habits. They’re not competitive or performative — most of these moments never make it to Instagram. It’s the restorative or meditative nature of the activity itself that helps us keep our balance.

If only we could all knit, hike, and fish our way to holistic well-being. But for many of us, the challenges run deeper.

Rough days and months are still ahead. It will take years for Colorado’s new behavioral health legislation to take hold and begin to improve access to mental health care in our community. I call on family members, friends, teachers, hospital staff, first responders, and anyone who encounters someone in need to draw from — or continue to draw from — their well of kindness and humanity.

Vincent Atchity, of Centennial, is president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.

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