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Bringing mental health out of the darkness

Just a few weeks ago, many of us in the Durango community read the tragic news that yet another young Coloradan was lost to suicide. A husband, father, teammate and colleague, he will be deeply missed by the many individuals whose lives he touched.

As we find ourselves in National Suicide Prevention Month, it’s hard not to take this loss with a special kind of sadness – and even harder to wrap our minds around the bigger picture.

Every 13 minutes, suicide claims the life of another person in this country. Colorado ranks seventh in the nation for highest rates of death because of suicide, with more than 1,000 lives lost last year. That’s more than double the number of Coloradans who died in a car accident.

We will never be able to know the innermost struggles of every person who ends his or her own life. But we do know this: About 90 percent of people who complete suicide were also experiencing some form of mental illness. Suicide prevention and mental health go hand in hand – and we can and must do more.

Earlier this summer, I organized a team of young mountaineers from the Durango area. Each of us had a passion for climbing and a personal connection to the cause of mental health. More than anything, though, we all believed that the stigma and shame our society places on mental illness have cast a darkness over the state we call home. And we decided to do something about it.

Our 10-week mission: scale all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks between June and August, to raise awareness and make sure that those dealing with mental-health or substance-use disorders know they are not alone. We called ourselves the Climb Out of the Darkness Expedition, because we want to bring these issues out of the darkness and into the light.

Our journey was beautiful, exhausting and probably one of the toughest challenges any of us has ever faced. We all suffered our own personal setbacks along the way, but together, we kept climbing and prevailed.

One of the most powerful things we realized during our expedition is that every single one of us has mountains to climb in our lives – uphill battles that we often keep to ourselves because we’re afraid that others will judge us or fail to understand.

For the more than 1 million Coloradans who experience a mental-health or substance-use disorder each year, this fear is often so powerful that it stops them from seeking treatment and support. It renders them silent. But when it comes to mental illness and suicide prevention, silence is deadly.

Fortunately, you don’t have to scale dozens of mountains just to make a difference. There are a few simple things all of us can do to help end the silence and stigma.

For starters, talk about it. If you know someone who is struggling with a mental health or substance use disorder, remind him or her that it’s not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. These are real health conditions that can be treated, and recovery is possible.

Take the time to get trained in mental health first aid. This eight-hour certification course teaches participants how to identify the signs of a mental-health challenge, what they can do to respond, and how to connect those in crisis with support systems. You can find a Colorado training session near you by visiting Mental Health First Aid Colorado at www.mhfaco.org.

Get involved with local organizations such as Mental Health America of Colorado, the state’s leading advocacy group for expanding the screening, prevention and early diagnosis of mental illness. MHAC fights every day to increase the availability of effective treatment, improve public understanding of mental-health and substance-use disorders and reduce stigma and discrimination. To learn more about its work, visit: www.mhacolorado.org.

Most important, if you or someone you know is having a mental-health crisis, call the Colorado Crisis and Support Line at 844-493-TALK (8255). This 24/7 telephone service offers free and confidential counseling and referrals.

Together, in ways big and small, we can change the way we treat, talk about and advocate for mental health here in Colorado and across the country. In the meantime, keep climbing the mountains in your life – no matter what they look like.

Anthony Reinert is a student at Fort Lewis College. He led the Climb Out of the Darkness Expedition, a group of young mountaineers who are the 2015 honorees of Colorado’s premier mental-health event – the Oct. 3 Tribute Gala, hosted by the statewide advocacy group Mental Health America of Colorado. Reach him at anthonyreinert@gmail.com. For more information, visit: www.mhacolorado.org/tribute2015.

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