by Joseph Merlin Bowers
After moving to Pueblo Colorado more than five years ago, I became heavily involved in mental health volunteer work. I’m retired and in recovery from a serious mental illness. i’m on the boards of the Friendly Harbor. a peer run community center for people with mental health and/or substance use issues, NAMI Southeast Colorado, and Mental Health America Pueblo. I’m a peer specialist at the Friendly Harbor and a trained connections facilitator and In Our Own Voice presenter for NAMI. I care about speaking out on the issues surrounding serious mental illness enough to have overcome a lifelong morbid fear of public speaking. I’m now fairly comfortable doing that.
More than just speaking out and supporting people face to face, individually and in small groups, my passion is advocacy. I want policy change at every level of government and within the mental health industry-changes that would positively affect every family dealing with serious mental illness.
To that end, with the help of Bonnie Bowman, possessor of two pHD degrees, NAMI Southeast Colorado board president and family member of seriously mentally ill individuals, I put together a local advocacy committee. It consisted of professionals, peers and family members, but didn’t stay together long. Unlike Bonnie and I, most of these people still have jobs demanding a lot of their time and attention. It was next to impossible to schedule things around most people’s obligations. By mutual consent we disbanded. Now the NAMI Southeast Colorado advocacy committee is mostly Bonnie and I.
We have been busy. Over the last couple of years I have scheduled numerous meetings with County Commissioners, state legislators and the current Lt. Governor while with some help from me, Bonnie put together a white paper of our five top mental health priorities for Southern Colorado.
I’ve established a bit of a connection with Dianne Primavera our Lt. Governor. We have met together on four occasions and discovered that we are both cancer survivors and while I suffer from what is probably bipolar disorder she had a brother who was a very successful lawyer but developed serious bipolar disorder and committed suicide. When I was telling Dianne about the Friendly Harbor and mentioned that the value of peers is controversial of some quarters she said that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the first people she wanted to talk to were survivors of breast cancer.
Bonnie and my five priorities are civil commitment beds at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, supported housing, Assertive Community Treatment, improved Assisted outpatient treatment laws and diversion from the criminal justice system. These are mostly state level priorities. In the Colorado legislature they passed legislation allowing anyone 12 and over to seek professional mental help without parental consent. We fear this allows minors to refuse needed treatment and want that amended.
I also have a connection with Andrew Romanoff. He has a decent chance of becoming one of our state’s two federal senators. The main thing we want at the federal level is the repeal of the IMD exclusion.
At the county level we seek commitment to a program called “stepping up.” This is a county level program intended to divert people into treatment rather than into our overcrowded county jails.
I have several friends now who have adult sons and daughters with serious mental illnesses who lack awareness or in one case refuses medication because of past bad experiences. A friends daughter is currently held in a facility in Northern Colorado where for some time they have been trying to restore her to competency so she can stand trial for some serious charges. She has been through the system so many times over so many years that the likelihood a her ever again getting into recovery is very slim. That ship may have sailed.
Another friend has a son with schizophrenia who refuses to take medication I think because of side effects. It may have been a previous bad experience. He is currently in jail. Rita didn’t tell me what happened. She had texted me some months before asking where she could take him to keep him our of trouble. She had been through the 72 hour hold process which just alienated him and made it harder for her to help. Now he is in jail for the long haul.
If there had been a place I knew of near where she lives like the Friendly Harbor I would have suggested that. We are a peer run support facility somewhat similar to the clubhouse model like New York’s Fountain House. We do not treat people, but we support them in many useful ways.
That the priorities mentioned above of Bonnie and I are needed seems obvious to me. It also seems much less complicated than rocket science how to prevent tragedies like those that befell my friends with adult mentally ill children and many other families as well.
It needs to be easier to get people into treatment when needed-involuntarily if necessary. Once in treatment they need to be kept in treatment until truly stabilized. If in a hospital or institution there must be adequate support for them upon release. If these simple things were in place, the benefit to these families and society in general would be enormous. It is unspeakably frustrating to me that they are not.