Former First Lady Jeannie Ritter Discusses Her Advocacy for Mental Health with Catherine Strode
Former First Lady Jeannie Ritter Embraces Mental Health Advocacy
Colorado’s former First Lady, Jeanne Ritter, is actively involved in efforts to improve behavioral health services in the state. As Mental Health Ambassador for the Mental Health Center of Denver, she establishes alliances within the mental health community and works to reduce duplication of efforts. Mental Health is an issue she passionately adopted as First Lady. In this two-part interview with Policy Outreach Specialist Catherine Strode, she says her passion for the issue has undergone change.
From where do you draw your passion for mental health advocacy?
“I used to answer that question by stating that I have an older sister that has a bipolar diagnosis and from the impact that had on our family. Now, I have changed that answer to include all of us. It’s not really about one person in my family having a mental health issue. It’s about everyone in my world (family members, neighbors, coworkers), all of us including myself where behavioral health intersects in our lives. Anxiety, substance use, depression, as well as other severe diagnoses. We all move in a world where that is our community and that’s where the passion comes from.”
As Mental Health Ambassador, what movement are you seeing in the field?
“There are so many efforts going on in terms of behavioral health. I get to participate in a lot of conversations and, hopefully, move work forward. I have a really great 30,000 foot view to see what the efforts are going on out there. Where could we link efforts and really expand? I work across the spectrum on everything from early childhood, infant mental health, all the way to initiatives that have to do with chronically homeless folks that need supports and housing. I say, ‘all roads lead to mental health.’ Regardless of what outcome you’re working towards, whether it’s obesity, grade level reading, employment, or cardiac efforts, people are beginning to realize you can’t get there without walking through the doors of a behavioral health conversation. Everybody’s on board. It’s an integrated approach. It’s an inclusive approach. It’s an all person approach. We no longer look at mental health as this stand alone; we see it as a component to the overall health and well-being of a person.”
Have recent violent societal events changed the dialogue among mental health professionals?
“The dialogue is always in the keeping of what we always say which is, ‘let’s make sure we have trauma informed services.’ We try to be a resource to the community. I have a colleague that works at CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and he made sure I knew there are supports for the trauma reporters are experiencing even in the reporting of these events. The key word here would be trauma. We know that trauma exists and we know what the byproducts of trauma are. How do we get earlier interventions in place and get folks to realize, whether they’ve been witnesses, part of the community, or working in any setting, it impacts all of us? It is not something we’re crafting. It’s absolutely real. What do we have as things that can help us build our own resiliency? What are the mechanisms we can call upon for our own calming so we build this collective, protective shield around us? What do we have in place to help us be protective in the future? A lot of us hope to cultivate those practices within the community where people are calling upon natural supports, building on natural supports, learning how to be a support to one another. Learning how we harness those tools to mitigate negative impacts and build that protective shield. Especially with children. Our children are exposed. It’s on the radio, it’s on the TV.”
What is the Mental Health Center of Denver doing to support children’s mental health?
“We have a robust infant mental health program here, as well as early childhood. Beginning with what they call the ‘DYAD”. It’s working with the two: the caregiver and the infant. Restoring that protective shield, or creating it if it never existed, for the mom. Some folks, due to trauma in their earlier lives, maybe they have behavioral health challenges, maybe they live in unsafe environments, that is not always in place. There’s a lot of tension. We know infants feed off of that tension. That starts this negative spiral. We don’t have to wait until there’s a full blown crisis. When we can work with our primary care doctors, our delivery doctors, we might know she’s going to have some challenges. Let’s put these supports in place. Let’s stack the odds for a healthy caregiver infant relationship. If we need to, we keep that going where families may have experienced trauma or witnessed violence. Little children that have witnessed, and sometimes not even witnessed but they were in their crib, are absolutely impacted by the trauma that happened in that household. Capturing and intervening with those families – that’s all very exciting.”
First of A Two-Part Interview Series
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.