Tom’s World — Tom Westfall
May is Mental Health Awareness month. Although there are very few families who haven’t been affected by some aspect of mental illness or substance abuse, it isn’t a topic that is often discussed. There is still a stigma attached to mental illness, and often times we are reluctant to discuss these matters in an open forum. To that end, I am sharing a portion of my personal journey with you. Some of you have heard this story before, so bear with me. For the rest of you; here it is.
When I returned to eastern Colorado subsequent to finishing my graduate studies in St. Louis, I brought in tow my young bride and our infant son. The transition from city life to that in a small town was challenging for Valerie and she struggled to find her niche. The untimely death of her only sister created a tipping point for her in terms of her mental health and an eating disorder that had been in remission since her high school days reappeared. I was a caseworker at the time, working in child protection, and even though I was supposed to understand mental illness, at times our lives felt overwhelming and out of control. I thought it was important to be “strong” for Valerie; seeking support for myself wasn’t ever a consideration.
At that time in 1976, access to mental health services in eastern Colorado was extremely limited. The local mental health center had very little outreach in the hinterlands. If I recall, a therapist traveled to Yuma and Wray one day a week to provide therapy. Our only real option for dealing with Valerie’s anorexia/bulimia was a private counselor in Ft. Collins. He wanted to see her for 50 minutes, once a week — a nearly 3-hour, one-way trip which she often made with a baby beside her. Several inpatient hospitalizations had negligible results and her condition worsened.
Ultimately a dearth of support services and lack of intensive clinical services along with increasingly severe depression on Valerie’s part led to her death at the age of 29. The children and I were devastated and it has been my mission in life to promote quality mental health services in rural Colorado.
Fast forward to 2017; I would like to say that everything is fixed now. I really would like to say that, but it would be less than candid. In truth, many people are still struggling with access to quality mental health services. But here’s the thing — it is so much better today than it was 40 years ago. Private psychotherapists and licensed counselors can now be found in many communities in eastern Colorado. Centennial Mental Health Center now has satellite offices in Akron, Yuma, Wray, Burlington, Cheyenne Wells, Julesburg, Holyoke, Limon, Elizabeth, Ft. Morgan and Sterling, and I think that this is something worth celebrating.
One of the crowning achievements of Centennial Mental Health Center this past year has been the completion of a new building in Morgan County. This state-of-the-art facility has the capacity for integrated care — physical and behavioral health, many group rooms, play therapy rooms, and counseling offices. It is a beautiful edifice and should serve the community for many years to come.
I have served on the Centennial Mental Health Center Board of Directors for more than 20 years. During my tenure on the board, I have witnessed many evolutionary changes in the delivery of mental health. The availability of tele-psychiatry, evidenced-based intervention strategies, enhanced substance abuse treatment, and greatly improved crisis services, including a respite facility have expanded Centennial Mental Health Center’s capacity to reach into the community and provide quality mental health services.
Attracting and retaining quality staff in rural areas, Medicaid expansion issues, along with meeting State and Federal regulations remains a challenge, but as a member of the Centennial Mental Health Center Board, I am confident that we will continue to work hard towards the goal of insuring the delivery of high quality mental health services throughout northeast Colorado.
As I think about May and Mental Health Awareness month, I also want to take a moment to acknowledge and thank everyone who is involved in the amelioration of mental illness — from the therapists in the trenches who have an incredibly difficult job, to those who serve in administrative and support positions.
And to all the individuals whose lives are affected by mental illness and to the families of those who have been adversely affected by substance abuse and/or mental illness; I know the pain of watching someone you love suffer the devastation of addiction or mental illness. Don’t give up. Help is available. Don’t let the stigma of mental illness keep you from reaching out and seeking support and assistance.
We are making progress. Today we’re stronger than we were yesterday and tomorrow, we’ll be stronger than we are today. To paraphrase the words of Robert Frost, “We have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. And miles to go before we sleep.”
Westfall can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.