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It’s time to talk about mental health.That’s according to Tri-County Health Department, which this month launched a campaign across the Denver metro area created by a coalition of public and private organizations designed to help people have open, honest discussions about mental health.“Let’s Talk Colorado” will mostly operate through online, public health and workplace platforms, said Monica Younger, the behavioral health coordinator at Tri-County, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.“The idea started years ago. Community members identified mental health as being a very serious public health concern and they asked us as public health to work on the issues,” she said. “Anybody can be affected by mental health concerns.”The campaign includes partners from throughout the Tri-County area but also beyond, including organizations in Jefferson County, Denver, Aurora and Boulder.People can expect to see campaign materials in the waiting room at their health care provider, or perhaps through information provided by their place of work. There’s also a website, LetsTalkCO.org, with downloadable tools concerning mental health discussions.“The Let’s Talk key messages are, number one, acknowledging that starting the conversation is difficult,” Younger said. “It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but having that conversation can save someone’s life.”They also hope the campaign will fight any stigma around mental health issues by providing statistics showing the commonality of mental health concerns.“If you know that in a room of eight people, two of them are struggling with mental health issues, that helps defeat stigma,” she said.Professional, personal connectionFor Keith Peterson, director of community benefits at University of Colorado Hospital, collaborating on the campaign wasn’t just professional.Peterson, of Denver, has a son who struggles with bipolar disorder. Peterson and his wife, Michelle, identified their son’s condition when he was a young adult still living at home.It all started with a messy room.Their son, also named Keith, had always been a “difficult personality,” Peterson said, but for years the family didn’t realize a more serious problem was at hand.If someone were to socialize with his son they would never know something was amiss, Peterson said, rattling off the traits that make his son wonderful. His son is brilliant, he said, passionate and with a strong sense of right and wrong.But Peterson also describes his son, now 27, as a black-and-white person who struggles with gray areas. He can lack tolerance and overreact when things don’t go his way.His brilliance could backfire on him as a high school student. If a teacher taught something contrary to what his son had already researched, that meant a challenge his son couldn’t back down from.And man, could his room get messy, Peterson said.His son, then in his early 20s, was living back at home after leaving school and losing his job. They don’t know why he lost his job, Peterson said but he and his wife offered support and sometimes, the tough love they thought appropriate.However, Peterson drew the line at his son’s messy room. He was a dad first, Peterson said, and that room had to be cleaned. He confronted his son, only to hear something that both shocked and confused him.“It’s not that bad,” Peterson recalled his son saying.Peterson didn’t understand how he couldn’t see the mess.At that point, Michelle suggested the issues ran deeper than just the typical problems faced by people in their 20s. At her encouragement, their son was evaluated.At nearly 24 years old, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.From then on, Peterson’s perspective on parenting his “difficult” son changed.The impact of talkingPeterson says the stigma surrounding mental health is very real, but not everyone with mental health conditions will handle it the same way.Besides offering specific tips for having conversations about mental health, the Let’s Talk Colorado website includes a quiz for people to test whether they can spot mental health stigma.Peterson’s son would likely react to prejudice by brushing it off. It’s not his problem if people can’t accept his condition, Peterson’s son would say. It’s their problem.But through his experiences, Peterson is now talking about mental health, and having continued conversations with his son about how he’s doing.Having someone to listen to is key for those struggling with mental health issue, Peterson said.“My advice,” Peterson said, “is if you’re really serious about the Let’s Talk campaign, if you’re really serious about removing that stigma, than you’re going to have to be willing to actually hear what comes from it.”Whether it’s a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder or a new mother with postpartum depression, this campaign is aimed at everyone, Younger said.Peterson believes it could make a difference.He is happy to report that treatment combined with more awareness has helped his son, who is now living in New Orleans and working at a job he likes.A godfather who travels for work will often visit to see how he’s doing. He also snaps a photo of his bedroom for his father.These days, that room is clean.
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