Juan Escobedo prods his students for an answer. It is still early in the morning, and the students, ranging in age from college-age to seniors, clutch steaming cups of coffee as they rack their …
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Juan Escobedo prods his students for an answer. It is still early in the morning, and the students, ranging in age from college-age to seniors, clutch steaming cups of coffee as they rack their brains for a response. Escobedo has asked the class to come up with a word for every letter of the alphabet that describes depression and anxiety — a stereotype, a symptom, whatever comes to mind. As he writes the responses on a flip sheet of paper and jokes about the legibility of his handwriting, the room has all the signs of a typical class. Except it isn’t.
Escobedo is teaching Mental Health First Aid, a class designed to teach people how to interact with people with mental health disorders, whether they be a friend or family member, co-worker, or a patient or client that someone might encounter in their profession. The Mental Health First Aid class is one of the many resources that the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, Jefferson County’s leading mental health advocacy group, offers.
Amid rising suicide rates both nationwide and in Colorado, mental health organizations are continuing to work hard to offer resources for Coloradans to prevent suicide and cope with mental illness. Their efforts range from introducing legislation to partnering with public health organizations to ensure quality mental health care is available to everyone. Whatever work these organizations are doing, they are doing so with the purpose of saving and improving the lives of all Coloradans.
Statistics recently released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state the suicide rate in Colorado increased 34.1 percent from 1999 to 2016. Colorado has the ninth highest suicide rate in the nation. In Jefferson County the suicide rate is 17.1 suicide deaths per 100,000 deaths, compared with the statewide rate of 19.1 suicides per 100,000 deaths.
Escobedo and his teaching partner, Katey Parsons, will later lead the group in a discussion dissecting many of the stereotypes that the group comes up with. They encourage participants to reflect on where a certain stereotype might stem from and what they can do challenge it.
Escobedo, a Mental Health First Aid instructor and bilingual behavioral health commissioner at the Jefferson Center, believes that deconstructing stereotypes is something the class does “like no other.”
“We go through myths, we go through facts, we go through data,” he said. Escobedo pushes his students to realize that there is no “cookie cutter approach” that will work on everyone when it comes to dealing with a mental illness. He encourages them to consider a person’s background when offering advice or support, recognizing that someone’s ethnicity or religion can shape how they view mental health.
Process for helping
Mental Health First Aid, a nationwide program, uses the ALGEE acronym to walk people through intervening with someone with a mental health disorder: Assess for risk of suicide and self harm, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage appropriate professional help, and Encourage self-help and other support strategies. The class teaches attendees to apply the acronym to various mental illnesses, ranging from a neighbor having a psychotic episode to a significant other struggling with depression.
“The biggest thing that I hope people get out of this class is that they are not afraid to help somebody,” said Parsons, a licensed professional counselor at Red Rocks Community College. Parsons is contracted by the Jefferson Center.
Along with offering the Mental Health First Aid class — free and open to the public — the Jefferson Center also partners with public schools in Jefferson, Clear Creek and Gilpin counties to provide professional mental health support personnel in schools. The organization also leads and facilitates the Suicide Prevention Coalition in those three counties. The coalition is comprised of community members from law enforcement to school district personnel and works to engage their community to prevent suicide.
“The other piece is making sure that we are all connecting in the community so that we can utilize each other as resources as well,” said Heather Trish, NCC, LPC, manager of trauma and suicide prevention services at the Jefferson Center.
Numbers tell story
According to data released by Mental Health Colorado, a statewide mental health advocacy group, 8.3 percent of Jeffco residents say they did not receive mental health care when it was needed. Of those residents, a majority say it was due to either cost or medical insurance, followed by difficulty getting an appointment. Mental Health Colorado is working to change that by integrating mental health care and primary care.
“The idea is that instead of forcing people to go one place to fix their body and another place to fix their head, we ought to be delivering those mental health and primary care services in the same location,” said president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado Andrew Romanoff.
Romanoff says this can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Like almost every other professional working in the mental health field, he also recognizes that stigma can be another barrier for people seeking mental health care.
Cheryl Storey, manager of assessment and referral team/outpatient psychiatric services at West Pines Behavioral Health in Wheat Ridge, believes that people stepping forward and sharing their stories about mental illness is key to reducing the stigma surrounding mental health.
“I think the more we’re open, the more willing to talk about it, the more it does become normalized,” Storey said. She hopes that more people can “step forward and help us all realize that people with mental illnesses are our neighbors and our family members and our teachers and our police officers.”
For Romanoff, this crisis is not simply statistical. When he lost his closest relative to suicide three and a half years ago, it became profoundly personal. He joined Mental Health Colorado because while he recognizes that he cannot bring back his cousin, he can work to prevent suicide.
“I want to spare other families from the anguish that we’ve suffered,” said Romanoff.
“None of us can do this alone,” said Trish of people struggling with mental illness. “So reach out, connect with people who can help support.”
“There’s always someone out there who cares. There’s always a tomorrow,” said Storey.
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