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25 Years of Behavioral Health

A very Happy 25th Anniversary to Colorado Access! Although I have only been at Colorado Access for a year, I have been in the behavioral health world for more than 25 years. As I ponder our Silver Celebration, I like to think back to where we were 25 years ago.

First of all, we didn’t even say behavioral health back then. It was usually mental health and substance abuse. In those days, never the twain did meet. You might not think a name is a big deal, but the words we use truly matter. I learned this early in my career from a passionate CEO I worked for.

She was one of the first people I knew who embraced person-first language. Because she was our leader, she instilled that philosophy in our entire organization. To this day, I embrace it and try to spread it where I can. We stopped calling people schizophrenic, and instead realized they were people who had schizophrenia. At first, I was skeptical and resisted. But after a while it began to make sense. Using person-first language helps us see the person and not the disorder. It is more respectful of the person and their experience. This holds true for any struggle a person faces. A person who deals with a mental illness, is not the sum of the mental illness. The illness is only a very small part of who they are. This caught on and is now the generally accepted way to refer to individuals with any struggle. I now cringe if I hear someone say things like “he’s a bipolar.”

These small changes have helped reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. I hear so many people today say they have challenges with anxiety or depression. People now talk openly about what anti-depressants or anxiolytics they take. It has become an open conversation as much as what diabetes or hypertension medications we take. This is a huge change in the last 25 years. When I started working in the 1990s, this was not discussed outside of the mental health world. There was a shame factor to it all. We have not eliminated stigma, but it is getting better.

Back when I started in the field, I did not even have a computer at my desk. Can you imagine? We had one in the office, and usually my boss was playing solitaire on it between sessions. There were no EHRs (electronic health records). I had to wait weeks to get a caseload report and forget about it being completely accurate. Real time data did not exist. I had a cell phone that weighed about 10 pounds, and I still thought I was super cool with it. How did we ever provide services in an emergency? I’m not sure, but somehow, we did. Technology has really helped our field, and we are seeing that even more during 2020. We can continue to serve people no matter what the situation.

Twenty-five years ago, some psychiatrists and therapists were afraid to tell their patients and clients what their diagnosis was. There was a fear that the person couldn’t handle or understand it. Now, the people we serve take an active role in their treatment and own their recovery. This was one of the original intents of HIPAA.

Recovery wasn’t used readily to talk about mental health either. The concept of a person recovering didn’t exist much. Mental illnesses were a life sentence for many. The industry was complacent, and it was accepted that a person must stay in services forever. More often, I hear the statement “nothing about me without me” and I love that. This is how treatment of any kind should be.

So, if you get discouraged because you think the world doesn’t recognize or understand mental illness enough, rest assured, we ARE making progress. It’s just that when it is incremental, it can be hard to see.

There is still much to be done, but we can also acknowledge that we are moving in the right direction in so many ways. As long as we continue to want the best for the people we serve, we will continue to move ahead. Colorado Access is one of the places that helps move this important work forward. I must say, I am so proud to be on staff at Colorado Access. This company has the right mission and I can’t wait to see what the next 25 years hold for our members.