Colorado first lady Jeannie Ritter listens to Craig community members speak about their triumphs and frustrations in providing mental health services Tuesday at the Moffat County School District administration building. Her Moffat County visit marks one of many she's making to gather information this year. In Craig, as she's heard in many other areas, funding is the system's major hurdle.

Photo by Michelle Balleck

Colorado first lady Jeannie Ritter listens to Craig community members speak about their triumphs and frustrations in providing mental health services Tuesday at the Moffat County School District administration building. Her Moffat County visit marks one of many she's making to gather information this year. In Craig, as she's heard in many other areas, funding is the system's major hurdle.

'Voice around the stigma'

First lady hears Craig's strengths, concerns

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Colorado first lady Jeannie Ritter listens to Craig community members speak about their triumphs and frustrations in providing mental health services Tuesday at the Moffat County School District administration building. Her Moffat County visit marks one of many she's making to gather information this year. In Craig, as she's heard in many other areas, funding is the system's major hurdle.

— With good intentions but limited resources, Moffat County mental health providers often struggle to offer comprehensive services.

"Money is a big issue," said Lt. Dean Herndon, administrator of the Moffat County Jail.

He said 60 to 70 percent of the jail's inmates suffer from a mental health disorder or substance abuse problem.

"We don't want to see people commit suicide : but we really need help from somebody," Herndon said. "We're at a loss of where to go."

About 30 community members - representing law enforcement, health care, education and nonprofit agencies - attended Tuesday's meeting at the Moffat County School District administration building to express to Colorado first lady Jeannie Ritter their strengths and struggles when providing mental health services.

Ritter is traveling the state this year, gathering information on mental health care needs. This week's trip to Northwest Colorado also included stops in Walden and Steamboat Springs.

A Meeker visit, scheduled for today, was cancelled in light of Monday's incident at the Capitol that left an armed man dead after he made threatening comments outside Gov. Bill Ritter's office. The governor was uninjured. Jeannie Ritter's staff said she plans to reschedule the Meeker visit.

Jeannie Ritter said she has made mental health her focus because it often is overlooked, but affects nearly all facets of life.

"This is something that needs some light shined on it," Jeannie Ritter said. "Everything has a mental health component. How have we managed to keep mental health back here in this corner?"

Simply visiting Craig shows progress, said Gina Toothaker, program director at Craig Mental Health.

Jeannie Ritter is "obviously very passionate about mental health issues, and she's really taking this on," Toothaker said. "It's apparent that she really wants to make a difference. She's not just sitting in Denver talking about it."

And it seems the Craig community hasn't been sitting idly by either, Jeannie Ritter said.

"It's the part that's caught me off-guard - seeing the communities coming together," she said. "What is unique is the collaborative piece. You can tell that there is a level of intimacy in the communities that impacts how you collaborate your services for these people."

Although interagency communication is strong, providing necessary services often places a burden on local organizations, Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said. He said the Police Department has spent $8,000 of unbudgeted funds transporting mental health patients to a facility in Grand Junction this year, simply because it needs to be done.

"Everybody's willing to help, but it's still a struggle to stretch the dollar," said Michael Toothaker, adult community coordinator for Horizons Specialized Services.

Vanatta suggested taxing alcoholic beverage purchases to help fund mental health needs, which garnered applause.

"Put a tax on some of the things that are creating the problem to help take care of the problem," he said.

Jennifer Langley, Moffat County School District psychologist, suggested Jeannie Ritter investigate other states' funding mechanisms. With Colorado ranking 49th in mental health funding, Jeannie Ritter said, "we have plenty to look at."

In the meantime, those at the meeting requested the first lady become the face of mental health in Colorado. In a "pull-it-up-by-your-bootstraps community," as Langley puts it, seeking psychiatric help is perceived as being embarrassing or shameful.

Barb Seed, outpatient business operations director for Craig Mental Health, said Jeannie Ritter's prerogative to focus on mental health gives her a chance to change that.

"I think we have the opportunity for us here to have you as a voice around the stigma," Seed said.

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