Gallagher: Make a difference on mental health |

Gallagher: Make a difference on mental health

R.J. Gallagher

“Mental Illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” — President Bill Clinton

When it comes to mental illness, I feel as if I’m a fortunate one. I can’t really say that I’ve experienced a loved one with what most would consider a mental illness. I know that there are quite a few folks in my life who wonder about me on any given day, but they know that’s just who I am, and they grin and bear it.

I guess the toughest thing for me is to understand that gray area where mental illness seems to live. For some reason, I don’t see mental illness as a black-and-white condition. For me, it’s just not the same as the presence or diagnosis of many other illnesses. But I do know that it’ll be a great day for all involved when mental illness is eventually viewed in the same way as, say, cancer.

Misconceptions about mental illness are pervasive, and the lack of understanding can have serious consequences for millions of people who have a psychiatric illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 4 adults, representing approximately 61.5 million Americans, experiences mental illness in a given year. One in 17, or about 13.6 million Americans, lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Suicide, which is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, is more common than homicide and the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24. More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide had one or more mental disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That’s a way-beyond-comprehension statistic when you think about it.

The other startling figures provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness is that 60 percent of adults and almost 50 percent of youth ages 8 to 15 have received no mental-health services for their conditions in the previous year. That is where the Aspen Strong Foundation comes into play. Aspen Strong is a relatively new foundation in Aspen at just the right time. Aspen Strong was formed in February 2014 by Christina M. King, a licensed professional counselor practicing in Aspen, as a response to Pitkin County’s suicide rate, which is three times the national rate. Let me repeat that: The Pitkin County suicide rate is three times the national rate. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice about the issue of suicide in our little slice of paradise, I’m not sure what will. Pitkin County also has ranked mental illness and substance abuse the top issues that have the greatest impact on health. One might find that interesting in a place where an active and “healthy” lifestyle is glorified on almost a daily basis. Makes one think, doesn’t it?

The Aspen Strong Foundation is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization with a goal to support mental-health awareness and reduce the stigma for those with mental-health issues by creating financial resources, centralizing mental-health resources and promoting a health-community dialogue where suicide is recognized as preventable and mental hygiene is embraced and supported.

The challenge, as I see it, is making sure those who need such critical services and support for mental illness actually engage the caring professionals who are associated with great organizations such as Aspen Strong. In many cases, it takes someone close to that person to help make the difference and encourage an outreach for such support. What is important here is to remember that help is just a call or click away.

Aspen Strong is a foundation that is supported by the communities it serves. It also is supported by the founder of the Mental Health Fund, Lawrence Altman. I know Altman from my years with him on the Aspen Community Foundation board. He’s the real deal and a class act. If you want to make a difference where one really needs to be made, reach out to Aspen Strong at Team up and volunteer with Christina and Lawrence, and help shine a positive light on what are dark issues for many. The result of your involvement will be an enlightened ripple effect that will create positive waves of change. And you’ll feel like a superhero.

R.J. Gallagher Jr. is a three-decade resident of the Roaring Fork Valley community. He has proudly served on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, the Aspen Community Foundation and Komen Aspen. His firm Forte International is a supporter of local philanthropy that makes a difference on a global level. “Philantopia” is a monthly column in The Aspen Times focused on philanthropy and community involvement. Gallagher is always open for ideas. You can reach out to him at