State’s first lady pays visit |

State’s first lady pays visit

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN Colorado’s new first lady is using her clout.Jeannie Ritter, wife of Gov. Bill Ritter, was in Aspen on Wednesday to talk about her new mental health initiative with more than 30 people, including many from local government.The slight, energetic mother of four was quick with tales of her earlier days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and the recent move to the governor’s mansion, but Ritter has an ax to grind.”I want to open the dialogue,” Ritter said of her plans for a year of fact-finding into statewide mental health issues. She’ll visit schools and clinics and talk with everyone from those affected to the experts, she said.

Ritter’s sister was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, something that motivated Ritter to tackle mental health issues, but Ritter stressed that she is responding to a greater need.And Ritter joked that if she chose a typical first-lady initiative like renewable energy or literacy, no one would ask her “why,” or if she had some “pivotal experience around it.”That’s the problem: “It’s stuff nobody wants to talk about,” Ritter said.With her background in special education, Ritter said, the initiative just fits, and she admits to using her new status to raise the level of awareness about mental health issues, adding that “it’s just time” to address the problem.And the problem is huge, Ritter said, with suicides increasing among men, and depression or mental health problems affecting the welfare of children.

Ritter said more than half the suicides in Mesa County were among male construction workers drawn far from home by high-paying jobs, and she is worried that Iraq war veterans, many with brain injuries or post-traumatic stress, find themselves without support.”We have to find a way to get [people] access to services,” Ritter said.Reforms to the state mental health system and finding ways to get people the help they need means workers are more productive, Ritter stressed.”We have a great economic argument for this,” Ritter said.

Ritter praised recent legislation for a preferred drug list and insurance coverage for more mental health issues, including eating disorders. And she advocates for what she called a continuum of care and follow-up with mental health clients.”What can we do differently?” Ritter asked.The event attracted a group of local legislators to the home of Blanca and Cavanaugh O’Leary, including Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud, Rachel Richards and Dorothea Farris, both Pitkin County commissioners, Aspen City Councilman Jack Johnson, Aspen Superintendent of Schools Diana Sirko, Garfield County Commissioner Trési Houpt and Aspen’s two mayoral candidates, Mick Ireland and Tim Semrau.Each $100 donation to attend the event will go to the Democratic National Party.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is

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