Ric Durity remembers when HIV/AIDS wiped out his partner, his friends, and a swath of the creative classes of a generation.
And he remembers what came next: The outrage that rode on the heels of adversity, and demanded the wide changes that rippled from medicine outward.
Durity was reflecting on that time on Saturday, when a group of around 100 at History Center Colorado in Denver was envisioning the kinds of changes required by a public health emergency of a different kind.
One in four Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And yet the stigma associated with mental illness continues to make it largely a taboo subject, kept behind closed doors and festering in isolation. The resources allocated deliberately toward its treatment, meanwhile, are separate and unequal from what is put toward physical health.
Durity, who is now development director at the Denver Mental Health Center, was part of a gathering of therapists, educators, advocates, people with mental illness and their family members who came together in a statewide effort to tackle illnesses left untreated for too long.
The gathering, known as CreatingCommunity Solutions, is the brainchild of Diane Mulligan, a former NBC producer who was spurred in part by President Obama’s call for a national dialogue on mental health.
“When people think of Colorado and mental health, they think of some horrific tragedies,” Mulligan told the group in Denver on Saturday.
She believes our state has a responsibility to change that perception.
“I’ll be damned if Colorado isn’t going to lead the way.”
Similar meetings took place in Glenwood Springs, Fort Collins and Glenwood Springs on Saturday. Each regional group was tasked with finding the most salient challenges, and will meet simultaneously again in May to come up with action plans for addressing these problems.
In Denver, the issue of stigma and discrimination rose to the top of the pile. A young man in recovery from severe mental illness—now working to provide behavioral health care to others—stood up to argue against underestimating the discrimination that stands in the way of those who want to get better.
“Stigma is a real thing,” he said.
But how do you fix it – or any of the deep-rooted problems in the way we approach mental health? Ideas ranged from big to small: Payment reform in healthcare delivery, a more integrated system of care, an anti-stigma marketing campaign.
Durity sees hope in the way people here are talking about mental health.
“There’s a parallel to the movement that came out of HIV,” Durity says. From a sickness once seen as uncurable, “we’re talking about treatment.”