Jeannie Ritter

Jeannie Ritter

The message: We can do better

— For the past several months, Craig Mental Health has advertised a job opening for a licensed therapist to specialize in mental health and substance abuse treatment.

"It's hard to get, and retain, really good staff in rural communities," said Tom Gangel, a division director for Colorado West Regional Mental Health, a Northwest Colorado group that operates Craig Mental Health.

Gangel used the Mental Health job opening as an example to better illustrate some of the problems Northwest Colorado has in offering mental health and substance abuse services to those in need.

"I think we do a pretty good job," Gangel said, "but part of the message has to be: We could do a lot better if we had a little more funding."

With more money available, the job at Craig Mental Health could be offered at a higher salary, making it easier to recruit candidates, and blunt some of the hesitation candidates have about living and practicing in a rural community.

As it stands now, Gangel said mental health services in Northwest Colorado, and Craig specifically, are challenged in meeting the needs of uninsured and underinsured patients.

Craig Mental Health is the sole mental health facility in the city; there are a handful of private practices.

Mental health issues will be at the center of public discussion next week when Colorado First Lady Jeannie Ritter visits Northwest Colorado for a three-day tour.

The First Lady's visit - which includes stops Monday through Wednesday in Walden, Steamboat Springs, Craig and Meeker - will include meeting with health care providers and community groups.

Ritter said mental health care is an important issue to her. Likewise for her husband's administration.

"It is important to me that I hear first-hand from the people of Colorado," Ritter said in a press release issued Thursday. "One of the reasons I chose to focus on mental health is because it affects every facet of our lives in every part of the state.

"This trip is part of my learning process. The governor and I share a belief that public policy should intersect with where people struggle and I'm hoping what I learn here will contribute to that discussion."

Laura Chapin, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Ritter, said the First Lady's visit is designed, in part, to further promote her agenda of shattering false perceptions of mental health and mental health patients.

She said some people have told the First Lady they were weary of seeking psychiatric help because they could be identified by people they know.

Chapin dubbed the dilemma "parking lot syndrome."

"She's on a mission to remove the stigma from mental health care," Chapin said. "She's on a mission to tell people that it's OK, that mental health care is health care just like anything else."

The Northwest Colorado tour is a fact-finding trip only, Chapin said, and is similar to previous trips the First Lady has made in the past six weeks across the state to discuss mental health care issues.

"She has a lot of questions and wants to get as much information as she possibly can," Chapin said.

Colorado West Regional Mental Health serves a 10-county area including Moffat, Routt, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties. The common struggle among the counties, Gangel said, is getting needed services to patients with economic constraints.

"The uninsured and underinsured," he said. "We really can't serve that population much. It's not expensive, but it generally takes several visits. Eventually, it can be very expensive."

It's a subject - additional funding - mental health providers will broach during the First Lady's visit.

"We'll talk about how funding can help us," he said. "We need to reach those people with no insurance or who can't afford it."

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