2007.02.24: February 24, 2007: Headlines: COS - Tunisia: State Government: Denver Post: Tunisia RPCV Jeannie Ritter dives in as first lady of Colorado

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tunisia: Peace Corps Tunisia : Peace Corps Tunisia: Newest Stories: 2006.12.13: December 13, 2006: Headlines: COS - Tunisia: State Government: Denver Post: Tunisia RPCV Jeannie Ritter is new first lady of Colorado: 2007.02.24: February 24, 2007: Headlines: COS - Tunisia: State Government: Denver Post: Tunisia RPCV Jeannie Ritter dives in as first lady of Colorado

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Tunisia RPCV Jeannie Ritter dives in as first lady of Colorado

Tunisia RPCV Jeannie Ritter dives in as first lady of Colorado

With mental health, Ritter knows she has chosen to focus on a particularly difficult problem, one where "success" may prove elusive and difficult to quantify. But there is something about helping the worst off that draws her. She served in the Peace Corps in Tunisia for a year in the 1980s. And the story about her and her husband's three years in Zambia working as lay missionaries at a food distribution center is well-known.

Tunisia RPCV Jeannie Ritter dives in as first lady of Colorado

Jeannie Ritter dives in

Mental health her focus

By Alicia Caldwell
Denver Post Editorial Writer

Article Last Updated: 02/24/2007 11:37:27 AM MST

Jeannie Ritter strides into the governor's mansion, takes off her denim jacket and looks around for a place to sit. The room is filled with the kind of carved wood furniture and oil paintings that you'd find in a museum.

She makes a quick decision: Let's go upstairs to the family quarters. But she adds a warning. "It looks like a bomb went off."

And, well, it does. But your place would too if you had only days before moving a busy household that includes four kids, a nephew, the family cat and a harried husband who was just sworn in as governor of Colorado.

Getting her house in order is a priority for Jeannie Ritter. But it's not only about unpacking boxes. As Colorado's first lady, she plans to direct her own energy to public service, with an initial focus on access to mental health services.

It will be an ample challenge. Colorado's recent budget crisis hit hard, leaving much to be done to re-establish mental health priorities.

Ritter isn't alone among Colorado's recent first ladies in crafting a personal agenda. Frances Owens focused on children's issues, particularly early intervention for children with disabilities. Bea Romer advocated on behalf of family issues, especially literacy. Dottie Lamm chaired the governor's task force for children and families and advocated for women's and children's rights. Ritter is out of the gate quickly, part learning tour, part advocacy.

Something you notice right away about Jeannie Ritter is her lack of artifice. She is willing to let you see who she is, busy house and all, and how she's going about constructing her agenda.

She is the first to say she is not an expert on mental health. But she brings a studious perspective shaped by her training as a teacher for emotionally disturbed children and having an older sister who suffers from bipolar disorder.

"I will never know more than the people I'm connecting with," she says. "What my role can be is to take their knowledge and promote it to the next level."

She is spending her days "diving in," as she puts it, going to meetings and visiting different groups. Her first official speech as first lady came earlier this month at the Adam's Mark Hotel before a meeting of mental health advocates and service providers.

The participants convened to develop strategies to show legislators that mental health services deserve strong support. Given the reductions in mental health services over the last few years, it was a dispirited bunch.

Jeanne Rohner, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Colorado, said the mood began to change when Jeannie Ritter started talking. "She brought hope where there was no hope," Rohner said. "The room just totally energized because they saw the potential that we could do something."

Mental health specialists say there are signs of movement. A bill before the state Senate would mandate expanded insurance coverage for mental illnesses, a measure that advocates see as important.

Another key public policy piece, Rohner said, is to divert mentally ill inmates out of the criminal justice system. As a longtime district attorney, Gov. Bill Ritter is well aware of the connection between law enforcement and the strains of mental illness and last week he announced he'll ask the legislature to fund an effort to reduce the prison recidivism rate. His proposal includes $3.1 million in 2007-08 for mental health services and substance abuse treatment and $858,438 for transitional mental health beds.

Rohner is convinced that the governor's initiative will benefit the state far more than simply adding more and more prison beds.

The state never has been a leader in mental health spending. For instance, in 2001 Colorado spent $64 per person on mental health services while the national average was $81. The state department of mental health, which has a $154 million budget for mental health services this year, plans to ask for an additional $77 million over the next five years.

Jeannie Ritter says that she has come to realize how mental health issues reach into so many different arenas. She had just returned from a meeting of the Denver Crime Prevention and Control Commission recently when she spoke to The Denver Post. She was taken with how many of those at the table saw the same problems but didn't have the right tools to deal with them.

Regina Huerter, executive director of the commission, offers a compelling example. On any given day, she says, 350 to 400 Denver County jail inmates are suffering from severe and persistent mental illness. They should be in treatment, she says. That costs about $12,000 a year per patient while incarceration runs about $30,000 annually. But the facilities and programs don't exist to accommodate them.

Having the first lady's ear on such matters, Huerter said, will do nothing but help.

"She's the right person to talk about this and help raise awareness," Huerter said. "She gets it. It's not about people being crazy. It's an illness that needs to be treated."

Jeannie Ritter is also keenly interested in boosting literacy, and said she'd be hard-pressed to turn down an opportunity to promote the cause. Recently, she visited Blair Caldwell Library in Five Points reading a Clifford the Big Red Dog book to young children.

With mental health, Ritter knows she has chosen to focus on a particularly difficult problem, one where "success" may prove elusive and difficult to quantify. But there is something about helping the worst off that draws her. She served in the Peace Corps in Tunisia for a year in the 1980s. And the story about her and her husband's three years in Zambia working as lay missionaries at a food distribution center is well-known.

She says that it brings satisfaction to offer a hand to those ill-equipped to help themselves. The thought makes her introspective about her own motivations. "Is it selfish if it also meets your own needs?" she wonders.

Regardless, she sees the platform afforded the first lady as a valuable opportunity to try to improve access and delivery of mental health services in Colorado.

"Imagine being 50 and someone comes up to you and taps you on the head with a wand and says, 'Look at this world of issues and pick one to focus on."'

She plans to go at it full bore, listening to those on the front lines and shining a light on their needs, without worrying too much about how her efforts are judged.

"If it gets people talking, it will have been the right thing," she said.

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