It's time to treat mental health as brain health

By Portia Prescott, NAACP Rocky Mountain State Area Conference

Lifelong Coloradan discusses her views on the perceptions and stigma surrounding mental health

Through the years I've had the opportunity to befriend many different people in the Centennial State as I’ve worked to promote equality and progress. As a native, my love for this state and its people has only grown, as has my desire to improve the quality of life for my fellow Coloradans.

Recent reports have found that a startling number of Colorado residents are suffering from mental illness. Sadly, these symptoms, that can be so debilitating for those affected, cannot be fixed by a one-time surgery or even a transplant. Though the perception of mental health is beginning to change, the stigma that mental health is inferior and less deserving of attention than physical health continues to persist. This must change.

The stigmas surrounding mental health serve as an immense barrier for many people who need medical treatment. Further, there is an additional cultural stigma against receiving mental health care in African American and other minority communities. These painful perceptions, based on prejudice, block people from seeking the help they need. Add those stigmas to a lack of treatment access and options in minority communities, and we are presented with a critical problem that must be addressed.

Of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Colorado is ranked last by Mental Health America in terms of adult mental healthcare. In addition to the prevalence of mental illness among adults in Colorado compared to other states, we also have some of the lowest rates of access to care. This is unacceptable.

The health care system needs to be modernized to treat brain health the same way we would treat the health of any other vital organ. We must streamline the way we treat ailments, such as depression and anxiety, and encourage the development of new solutions that improve the lives of patients with serious mental illness. Further, we need to ensure patients have access to innovative treatment.

I commend Gov. Jared Polis and other leaders, including legislators from the black, immigrant, Hispanic and LGBTQ communities, for their work championing mental health. A shout out as well to many Republican legislators who showed that there can be bipartisan cooperation to solve critical problems. I urge other lawmakers to follow their lead. It is imperative that policymakers and healthcare systems take steps to provide timely access to new mental health treatment options for everyone suffering from mental illness, especially among our African American communities.

We cannot allow mental illnesses to continue to plague our friends and loved ones. As we work to replace harmful stigmas with compassion and innovative treatment options, we can improve the lives of all of those who are currently struggling with their mental health.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects all races, genders and ages. Although its symptoms may not reveal themselves, like a rash or a cough does, the serious implications of mental illness to one’s health is no less important than other diseases or disorders.

All of us know someone who is hurting, and though the battle cannot be won in a day, each step toward progress we make is significant to our communities here in Colorado and beyond struggling with a mental illness. I am proud that the Rocky Mountain State Area Conference joined other forward-thinking organizations as part of the Brain Health Colorado coalition as the time for change is long past overdue.

A Black woman w/long, black hair wearing a blue jean shirt and smiling
Portia Prescott

Portia Prescott is the president of the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State-Area Conference and managing partner of Jefferson Prescott Consulting.

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