On Friday, March 1, 2013, MHAC's 20th annual Legislative Education and Advocacy Day (LEAD) brought together Colorado's behavioral health leaders to learn from each other about how peers are changing systems of care in our state. The theme of the event was "Peers Affecting Change," and the program highlighted the many ways in which peers--individuals living in recover from mental health conditions and/or substance use disorders--are transforming systems of care, grassroots advocacy, and health care policy in Colorado.
In the morning session students, mental health professionals, peers from community mental health centers, and a variety of community advocates heard from five peers whose personal experiences have led them to pursue different forms of advocacy. Among the presenters were Evan Silverman, a member of MHAC's board of directors; volunteers and activists Amanda Stettenbenz and Karen Weisz; artist and performer Brian Bernard; and Insuring Our Future storyteller Angela Wilson. These men and women shared their experience with behavioral health issues, navigating the health care system, and the importance of advocacy and education to helping more Coloradans lead healthier lives.
MHAC recognized individuals and organizations who have taken a leading role in advocating for mental health in Colorado. Representative Amy Stephens (R-El Paso County) and Senator Pat Steadman (D-Denver) both received Legislator of the Year awards. Rep. Stephens was a key supporter of the bill that created Colorado's Health Benefits Exchange, a market-based reform to help more people afford health insurance. Sen. Steadman, chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, has been an advocate for reducing stigma and restoring funding for behavioral health services that was deeply cut during the recession.
We also recognized Aurora Mental Health Center as Community Advocate of the Year for their extraordinary response to help the people of Aurora cope with the heartbreaking tragedy of last summer's movie theater shooting. The Center offered no-cost counseling to families that were affected, as well as young people throughout Aurora who needed help processing their feelings about the tragedy.
Amanda Kearney Smith, Executive Director of the Colorado Mental Wellness Network, was honored as Peer Advocate of the Year. Amanda has overseen the formation of the Network as an independent, totally peer-run training and advocacy organization. All of LEAD's peer presenters, and many people in the audience, have been a part of the Network's Colorado Leadership Academy, Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) training, and advocacy programs.
Our keynote panel included Reggie Bicha, the Director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, peer specialist Sandra Marion, and Jennifer Hill of the Colorado Mental Wellness Network. The speakers provided technical and personal insights into how Colorado's behavioral health system is changing. Though we still face profound challenges, Director Bicha--a former social worker--underscored the Governor's support for increased funding of mental health services, and evidence-based changes the state is pursuing to improve outcomes.
Jennifer and Sandra illuminated for LEAD attendees the day-to-day reality of working to deliver services with and to peers. They emphasized that recovery is possible for everyone, that peers are essential to a sustainable recovery support system, and that the behavioral health peer community is a vast potential resource for improving both public and private systems of care.
We were privileged to be able to shine a light on the men and women whose personal experiences with mental health guide advocacy organizations like MHAC, and hopefully in the future will play a great role in shaping public policy.