Town hall addresses mental health

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Scott Winter of Arvada was a loving family man — a husband, father and brother — who “treasured life,” until the anguishes of depression and anxiety caused him so much pain that he just couldn’t take it any more, according to his wife, Jane.

Scott Winter, 46, took his own life in June 2011.

Mary Eppolito of Westminster has also experienced loss. Two young people near her grandson’s age have committed suicide recently: A 16-year-old high school honor student, and an 18-year-old man, who killed himself while he was on leave from the Army.

Eppolito and Jane Winter shared their emotional stories to an overflow crowd at Arvada’s Standley Lake Library Saturday, at a town hall meeting addressing mental health issues affecting our communities.

One question lingers in Eppolito’s mind.

“Why?” she said afterward, fighting back tears. “They have their whole lives to live. Life is so beautiful. Something has got to be done. These kids are afraid to talk to anybody.”

Figuring out how to best deal with mental health issues on a legislative and societal level is a topic that has received renewed attention in the wake of recent mass shootings where the mental health of the assailants has been called into question.

“Our mental health system has become more important than it ever has been,” Democratic State Rep. Kraft-Tharp of Arvada told the audience.

Kraft-Tharp and state Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, organized Saturday’s event. During the forum, Winter spoke through tears as she urged action on finding better ways to address mental health issues, so that lives like her husband’s may be saved.

“His life ended tragically,” she told the audience. “But my wish is that something beautiful and wonderful can come of that life.”

The town hall also featured a panel of mental health experts, who shared their thoughts on how best to care for those with mental health conditions. While headline-grabbing deadly shootings were on the minds of some in the audience, Michael Lott-Manier of Mental Health America of Colorado, said that it’s important to not “equate violent crime with mental health issues.” He cited data from the National Institute for Mental Health, that shows that only about 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by those who have a mental health diagnosis.

“They worry that they will be labeled as dangerous or violent,” Lott-Manier said of people struggling with mental health conditions. “And that’s the last thing we want to do.”

The attendees also learned details of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s request to pump $18.5 million into the state’s mental health system. Lisa Clements, Director of the Office for Behavioral Health for the Colorado Department of Human Services, said that Hickenlooper wants to use the funds – upon approval from the Legislature – to streamline civil commitment procedures and to allow for “real time data transfer” between state and federal agencies whenever people who have had civil commitments seek to purchase firearms, Clements said.

The governor also seeks to develop a statewide crisis response system made up of behavioral health experts, that would allow people to call a toll free number, 24 hours a day, whenever those individuals are “experiencing extreme distress,” Clements said.

Lawmakers like Hudak and Kraft-Tharp will take up Hickenlooper’s funding request this legislative session. And Kraft-Tharp has pending legislation aimed at bettering the mental health system, including a bill that was introduced in the state House Friday that would help mental health professionals “be as effective as possible” when working with clients, she said after the event.

Anything that can better the system would come as welcome news to people like Winter.

“That is the true assessment of whether our suicide prevention efforts are working,” she said afterward. “And that is keeping people from dying.”

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