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Valley Life for All: Treating mental illness as disability is a must

Annie Uyehara
Special to The Aspen Times

Editor’s note: The Aspen Times, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, continues a monthly series of profiles about people in our community who meet challenge with courage and perseverance.

When we think of disabled people, we often think of physical challenges, but mental health disabilities are just as challenging and more common than society gives notice.

Lawrence Altman, co-founder of Aspen Strong — which provides resources and financial help for mental health challenges — candidly said, “Mental illness is a disability.”



Altman considers himself disabled because he daily deals with depression and social anxiety disorder. But while he spiraled downward in 2019, he emerged healthier and hopes others thrive as he did.

Altman, once a successful Wall Street oil trader, witnessed the second plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. Many of his trader friends died on the 92nd floor of the South Tower. “It was incredibly impactful,” Altman said. “But looking back, I always suffered from depression and anxiety. Growing up, though, our idea of mental illness was state institutions where crazies went.”



There’s still a stigma against mental illness, he said. “It’s the reason I’m talking about my life, to get rid of the stigma. I struggle with mental health every day, but I’ve survived, and if I help one person, it’s worth it.”

When Altman moved to Aspen after 9/11, he realized his problems didn’t disappear with a new locale. Some family members had mental illness, and he still had to face his own. His life appeared to be perfect, with a great family, great house, great town; he was a football and lacrosse coach; and he competed in Ironman triathlons — it all looked so good.

“That’s part of the stigma: people think, ‘You have everything, why are you complaining?’ Altman said. “But it’s hard being perfect. It was literally killing me.” He suffered kidney stones and self-medicated with alcohol and drugs.

At his darkest, he also saw the light. With therapy, Altman faced his mental disability with honesty and vulnerability. “I don’t think depression and social anxiety ever go away completely; you have to work on it constantly, but you can have a good life,” he said.

Altman established the Aspen Mental Health Fund to provide financial assistance for those who can’t afford mental treatment. Aspen Strong is under that financial umbrella.

Aspen Strong’s mission is to raise awareness and improve mental health with financial resources. The goal is to inspire a movement that promotes dialogue where mental wellness is supported. Contact Aspen Strong at 970-718-2842 and aspenstrong.org.

Altman encourages people suffering with mental disabilities to ask for help. “I have to learn to live with my disability every day. But it isn’t a death sentence; no emotion or thought can kill you. I’ve learned to live comfortably with my disability. Be honest and vulnerable enough to reach out and ask for help. Absolutely, there is hope.”

Local nonprofit Valley Life for All is working to build inclusive communities where people of all abilities belong and contribute. Find us at http://www.valleylifeforall.org or on Facebook.


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