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Mental health is a growing concern, with three times as many LGTBQ+ Coloradoans reporting poor mental health as non-LGBTQ+ Coloradoans.

Steven Haden, a service provider with the Mental Health Center of Denver, works directly with several LGBTQ+ individuals, many of whom are young, nonbinary, and trans. Haden is gay and has his own story of survival following an attempted suicide and recovery from a substance use disorder, which helped lead him to this field.

“Out of that, I was able to start thinking, ‘How can I use this really dark period of my life and the challenges that I experienced and turn that into supporting other people who’ve been in places where I’ve been?’” It was during a brief encounter with Jerry Cunningham, the publisher of OUT FRONT Magazine, in December 2017, that the conversation about Envision:You began. “We considered the work each of us were doing, our positions of privilege, and our commitment to promoting the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community, and decided to act.”

Cunningham said, “I have experienced so many people in my life that have been impacted by poor mental health. I watch the suffering and listen to painful stories from people in our community. It was important for me as a gay person, as a business owner, and a lifelong resident of Colorado, to take action.” He added, “I’ve never been more energized and committed to a cause as I am now with Envision:You.”

Passionately committed to addressing the distressing mental health outcomes so many queer people encounter, Haden and Cunningham co-founded Envision:You. Starting in the middle of 2018, they held a series of town halls to gather input from community leaders, clinicians, individuals with lived experience, and others committed to the welfare of Colorado’s LGBTQ+ community.

In total, the Envision:You team sat down with more than 300 community stakeholders to come up with areas of focus that would support the recovery of LGBTQ+ individuals experiencing a mental health or substance use disorder. “There are so many individuals and organizations devoted to this work in our state, and we continue to look for ways to support and expand these efforts by establishing collaborative partnerships,” Cunningham said.

Haden added, “Experts in the behavioral health field too often fail to recognize the impact mental illness can have on the LGBTQ+ community—or the impact that being LGBTQ+ has on one’s mental health. This is one of the many reasons Jerry and I founded Envision:You.”

Queering Mental Health- Envision:You 2020

From those meetings, Envision:You established four areas of focus: educating the LGBTQ+ community and increasing awareness of the prevalence of mental health and substance misuse concerns and their deleterious effect on the community. Another important effort is advocating on behalf of the community to ensure policies and programs consider the unique life experience of queer folks.

Envision:You are also working to ensure culturally relevant resources are available to the community while encouraging individuals to ask for support when in need. The lack of affirming care is a significant barrier to quality, behavioral health interventions, so Haden and Cunningham are developing a comprehensive training program for providers to gain the skills they need to deliver meaningful and supportive care.

“When we walk into a provider’s office, we want that to be an affirming experience. We are looking at the best models of care, talking to members of the community along with clinicians to develop a training process that will lead to an enhanced, therapeutic experience for queer individuals based on evidence and best practices.”

Claire Abate, program manager at Envision:You, experienced the stigma LGBTQ+ people often fight while in the healthcare system firsthand. “I’ve been to those doctors’ appointments; I’ve had a therapist talk to me about how, if I weren’t gay, I probably wouldn’t have this problem.” Through her own personal traumas and her experience around them, she added, “It’s just that lack of knowledge.” Abate now faces a whole new world of mental health issues by dealing with stigmas as a gay parent.

Dr. Nancy Lorenzon, a University of Denver biological sciences professor and director of research and evaluation for Envision:You, mentioned the 2018 Colorado Health Access Survey and what the data reveals about the mental health of Colorado’s LGBTQ+ community. “While there have been significant changes regarding legal recognition and protections of LGBTQ+ folks, large challenges remain, particularly in mental health. We know that LGBTQ+ Coloradans report much higher rates of poor mental health than their straight counterparts and are less likely to access the mental health care they need.”

Fifty-eight percent of LGTBQ+ Coloradans worried they might lose their home due to an inability to pay monthly rent or mortgages in the next year.

The pandemic we are all experiencing further compounds these concerns. “The financial impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ+ folks will be devastating, especially for the transgender community—a group that is historically underemployed or unemployed due to outright discrimination. “For those that were working before the pandemic, many have lost their job,” she added. “I think that this is an extremely hard time for all marginalized communities financially, compounded by the loss of community. These are potent forces that will hinder good mental health.”

Lorenzon shared the stats from a 2015 National Center on Transgender Equality study that found transgender or gender-nonconforming folks twice as likely to be living in poverty, and people of color in this group are affected even more adversly. “So, we know the trans community is disproportionately impacted. It’s really distressing that those are the circumstances.”

Haden added, “Many LGBTQ+ people are employed in sectors that are heavily impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. LGBTQ+ people also face significant, economic disparities compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers, which means they may lack the resources to stay afloat during this public health emergency.”

According to the most recent Colorado Health Access Survey by the Colorado Health Institute, approximately 20 percent of Colorado’s population has a diagnosable behavioral health condition. Sadly, nearly one in seven Coloradans—about 660,000 people—said they did not get needed mental health services in the prior 12 months, a spike of 278,000 people from the same point two years ago.

As part of the organization’s commitment to raising awareness about these important issues, Envision:You, the University of Denver, and the Mental Health Center of Denver came together last year to present the first–annual Colorado Behavioral Health & Wellness Summit held in October on the DU campus. According to Lorenzon, “Each of these organizations share a collective commitment to encourage neighbors, friends, family, and colleagues from around Colorado to learn more about behavioral health issues and treatment.” She added, “We believe this is helpful in changing language and beliefs about mental health issues, in developing mental healthcare policies that are fair and just, and in promoting a system in which better, more compassionate outcomes are the norm.”

According to Haden, “The Summit is a great opportunity for us to talk about effective intervention strategies, including harm reduction, to look at opportunities to improve the delivery of behavioral health services in Colorado and demystify rehabilitation and treatment. Additionally, we hope the Summit provides an opportunity for providers, people with lived experience, policymakers, and members of the community to talk to one another about the need for change. Too many people in our state are not receiving care, and the Summit can underscore the importance of working together to find solutions.”

The second-annual conference will be held November 9 and run through November 12, 2020. Participants will be able to discover new tools and resources, discuss practical strategies for change, and connect with colleagues and experts. The Summit is free and open to the public. To learn more, you can visit cbhws.org.

Moving forward, the team is looking forward to further developing Envision:You to best serve the LGBTQ+ community. “As the organization expands its reach and programming, our team is working every day to ensure our community doesn’t lose another person to suicide or overdose,” Haden said. “Ensuring the resources and support are available for the community is essential.”

To learn more about Envision:You, visit envision-you.org. If you or someone you know is experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis, please contact Colorado Crisis Services by calling 844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255. For young, queer people, support is available from The Trevor project at thetrevorproject.org.