by Mykaela A. Jones
In 2018 there have been a few tragic events covered by the media which seem to have a lot in common with one major aspect being how mental health is viewed by the general public. One big issue being that it becomes a scapegoat when tragedy strikes the nation. One example of this being the Parkland high school shooting which took place February 18, 2018. This, like many mass shooting tragedies and other such events, sparked a national debate about whether or not we blame guns or mental health. This event had many people calling for stricter gun access laws while many more were quick to point fingers at the mental state of this killer.
More than a month prior to this senseless and preventable tragedy, a now disgraced social media personality, who will remain unnamed in this article as not to give his name any more credit than it deserves, recorded, filmed, edited, and uploaded a video which featured the recently deceased body of a suicide victims in Japan’s notorious suicide forest. This sparked a discussion about mental illness and suicide awareness that pretty much destroyed the career of this individual. Back in January, I wrote an article about the suicide forest incident, trying to discuss how mental illness and mental health awareness are topics better addressed in different ways, specifically in ways that don’t involve filming the subject and making fun and/or light of the situation. The reason being is that this only causes more issues than it does solutions.
To some in the media, it was confusing as to why mental health was being in a sense protected in regards to the suicide forest incident, and demonized when the Parkland shooting happened.
After sending in a previous article about the proper way to approach mental health, I was informed that I could speak to someone who could give more insightful and professional dialogue about the main questions and other miscellaneous topics regarding mental health issues. I had the awesome opportunity to speak with Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the house of representatives for Colorado, who is now the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.
For the sake of background information Mental Health Colorado is a statewide advocacy program whose purpose is to improve public policy around mental health and substance abuse disorders, and to raise public awareness of mental health. In an interview conducted on February 9, 2018, Romanoff spoke about several different topics regarding his job and the work that goes in to the program. Romanoff stated that he himself is not a certified mental health professional, just an advocate who works with professionals and has his own experiences with mental health in his own life, like many of us not only in the community, but in the world as a whole. In this interview, I prepared a series of questions, which Romanoff, as you will see, answered as thoroughly and informative as a person in his position could have. I myself was very curious as to how someone who was so well versed in the political ladder of Colorado got involved with something that seems so out of place for someone in politics. But alas, I could not go into this interview with assumptions and what was revealed in this interview was both eye opening and insightful.
I was curious as to how Romanoff got involved with Mental Health Colorado, and what made him so want to be involved with the “movement” as he described it multiple times throughout the interview. He described his desire to help others, specifically those going through a mental health crisis as something that he had been passionate about for pretty much his whole life. Romanoff provided some exposition on his life and some of his own experiences with family members who have suffered from mental health issues. He stated, “My mother was a social worker and my father was a prosecutor, which proved to not be a good combination since they ended up getting divorced due to differences in beliefs. My mother worked in a mental institution in Ohio, and this was a flawed institution, many people who would leave this place would either end up on the streets or getting into more trouble because they were not getting the adequate care they deserved. A thought crossed my mind one day when I was thinking about the topic, ‘how many of the defendants that my dad sentenced were in the hospital where my mother worked?’ and that got me thinking about the problem with mental health in the USA and how the systems that handle them are flawed. I mean how could a country with equality as it’s slogan condemn these people to an early grave?”
Romanoff mentioned in this section of the interview that in his time as the Speaker of the House of Representatives of Colorado he tried to reach for improvements for mental illness care in the state. While his time in the house may have seen a few changes and he may have received the affectionate title of “The Capitols Golden Boy” that did not exclude him from having mental health issues run in his own personal life. Three years ago on New Year’s Romanoff described the tragic suicide of his young cousin,whom he described as someone who was like a little sister to him, she ended up dying from a selfinflicted gunshot wound at a family gathering. Consequently, mental health played several roles in the life of this former big name Colorado politician, and the work he is doing now only furthers the compassion and change that Romanoff worked for in his time in politics.
What MHC’s goal is for those in the state, Romanoff believes that the most effective course of action when educating the public on the topics of suicide and mental illness is to integrate mental health care into the primary health care system. Romanoff stated, “They are separate, most forms of mental health (cases that require hospitalization) have some kind of physiological basis. Science hasn’t unlocked all these mysteries and if we ended this division and stigma it would it easier to get people the help that they needed.”
To better explain, Romanoff created this idea, when someone injures their shoulder they go to the hospital, they get their shoulder taken care of, put in a cast and are given a recovery time. When someone goes to get mental health care, however, they are pretty much just thrown aside, given drugs, or not taken seriously enough to be given adequate care. Romanoff says, “You need to bring them to the same place, make mental health screenings more accessible. On Mental Health Colorado’s website there are nine self screening tests and confidential tools that could be useful in steps to helping yourself.” One of the main goals of the program is to better educate people on the topics of mental health, and when the stigma is broken down, the better it will be for the public and those in crisis.
Since this interview took place in February, and with the topic of diversity being spread across every platform imaginable, I asked how mental health stigma influences minorities, specifically people of color, women, and immigrants. Romanoff stated, “People of color and immigrants tend to fall into a category of low income and a high susceptibility to poverty, which means they are less likely to get access to mental health care.” According to the latest census showed that 57% of people in marginalized groups of people say they don’t have access to mental health care because they cannot afford it. Romanoff says, “There is a lot more stigma about mental health in different communities, such as African American communities. They are a community among any other who have the lower access to mental health care due to larger stigmatization.”
He went on to explain in the case of women and mental health that while women are more likely to attempt to commit suicide, men are more likely to actually kill themselves due to a mental health crisis. This is due to the fact that women in societies have been more anticipated to deal with mental illness while men are expected to just “man up” and be strong. The topic of men and mental health has always been a touchy subject among many communities. With the ideas of masculinity and studies of mental health evolving constantly, Romanoff believes that the stigma really does need to die. Also taking into consideration that for every actual suicide there are 25 attempts, “A stubborn statistic, really,” said Romanoff, “people need to realize that mental illness is not a death sentence, and is treatable.” This topic changed the tone of his voice for a split second, from professional and calm, to passionate and compassionate, which showed that I was talking to a person about mental health, before I was to a politician.
Which is why I had to know what the biggest misconception of mental health that politicians had when it comes to the topics of mental health and mental health access. Since Romanoff worked in the House of Representatives from 2000-2008, he confirmed that there is a lot of misconceptions that politicians have when the two topics are incorporated with one another. One thing that Romanoff wants big name politicians to know about mental health is that it is economically beneficial and cheaper to treat mental illness than it is to ignore or to criminalize it. Stating, “A lot of the money that could be used for better access to mental health care is used to fund the criminal justice system; which is absolutely the least therapeutic incorporations. It is more likely to exacerbate it [mental illness] than it is to cure or treat it. We know that mental health issues tend to manifest in the ages of adolescents (50% by age 14 and ¾ by age 24) and when we focus on address the issues before they reach a crisis point.”
A small side piece of conversation we shared was in regards to the topic of mentally ill people and cancer, circling back to the healthcare and how politicians can look at it, when cancer is detected you begin to treat it so that it does not advance onto stage four, where it is nearly impossible to treat and cure. People in charge must first recognize the signs of a mental health crisis so that it does not advance into a major issue, such as a suicide attempt or, in extreme cases, a situation where many could lose their lives such as what happened recently in Florida. The topic really can circle back to the idea that mental health needs to be taken more seriously and that stigmatization and that we need to start intercept the individual before crisis points become more and more plausible.
Long before I actually interviewed Romanoff I had prepared a series of questions, one of them being in regards to the incident with the social media star and Japan’s suicide forest, at this point in the interview I had to swallow a sticky spoonful of anxiety, where I then explained the situation and then asked him his opinion on it as a mental health advocate. He went on to explain that if this disgraced character was trying to start a conversation, he went about it in the wrong and most unethical way you can possibly think of. He stated, “Glamorizing suicide is not okay. The best way is to not politicize a suicide and turn it into a media stunt.” from the research conducted for this interview, psychologists and therapists seem to agree with the Romanoff’s statement, as that can only cause a lot more problems for young and impressionable minds. “When discussing suicide and mental health to young people, reliziance learning is the best way to go, by asking the question ‘how do you help kids become mentally healthy?’. Evidence based approaches instead of giant assemblies have been shown to work in the benefit of young people.” Romanoff said.
He went on to explain that mental health is not something that should be demonized by the media and that statistically speaking people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of a crime than they are to commit one. Incidents like the most recent school shooting only go to show that it should be harder to access guns than it is to access mental health care. In general, better care could prevent tragedy and unfortunate circumstances surrounding mental health patients and suicide victims.
As the conversation took a turn for the nitty gritty, I found my next question to be very appropriate. Does this line of work ever become exhausting? A question to which he responded by bringing up the topic of his young cousin, explaining that after that incident and as time has gone on with his time at MHC, that yes it can be very emotionally exhausting. As he discussed his cousin and the work he does he said, “She didn’t want people to think that she was mentally ill, and while this sometimes takes a toll on me, it’s worth it. All you really can do when things get hard is to push forward, support policy change and mental health care as much as possible, I feel that even though she died someone else’s life might be saved.”
He then emphasized on the fact that treatment does work for those who seek it out, but much like substance abuse issues someone must first want to get help. Romanoff used his twin sister, someone who regularly receives mental health treatment, as an example of how treatment can help people. He explained, “My twin sister has depression, she actually cut herself off from our family for a few years, but she ended up reaching out and asking for help, then she got treatment. While it was trial and error, she now lives a steady life, has a job and a boyfriend and we see her more. She may have been in a dark place, but my sister is living proof that treatment does and can work; there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. Cases like her’s go to show that there are good endings to these stories, not all of them have to end like my cousins.”
I then asked Romanoff about the progress that he has made in his time working for MHC. He said, “We haven’t been the sole reason but we’ve been part of the solution. We were part of a law being changed in Colorado where mental health patients don’t need to be placed in jail for a mental health episode. We also played a part in Senate bill 207 in 2017, a bill that helped increase better care for behavioral health crisis. Later in November of 2017 in Eagle county, MHC was involved with support for an efficient for mental health and substance abuse treatment.”
The organization has also pushed for efforts and succeeded in bringing changes in local funding spend time in the list year for how schools could address the issue of mental health education in public schools, asking the hypothetical “How do you get mental health prevention to young kids in Colorado?” .
This was probably one of the most eye-opening interviews I had conducted. With the wrap up of the final question I wished the former speaker a good day and then sat back to reflect on what we had discussed. I even took his suggestion to dig deeper into the MHC official website, now I suggest that if you are curious and want to know more about anything spoken about in this article, I highly recommend that you visit www. mentalhealthcolorado.org. To conclude, mental health is not as scary as some media would like you to believe. It is just something that is full of stigma and a lot of questions that science still has yet to answer. So until then, reach out to your loved one’s or someone you may know is going through a rough time and let them know that while you may not understand all that they go through that you are there to love and support them.
Furthermore, if someone you know is suffering from a crisis feel free to share the numbers below with them.
Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255 Mental Health Colorado: 720-208- 2220, ww.mentalhealthcolorado.com
Mind Springs Granby: 970-887-2179