CONNECT Summit County’s Resource Navigation Director Wendy O’Leary sees the irony: She has been on the frontline of behavioral health advocacy in Utah for many years…and is moving to Colorado to seek better services for her family.

O’Leary recently announced that she is leaving Utah following a family vacation to Colorado where her adult son, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, had a mental health crisis. What could have been a devastating experience turned into an eye-opening one.

“The experience we had in Colorado was far different than our many encounters over the last two years with police, ER and psychiatric unit staff in Utah,” she says. “Unfortunately, most of these experiences were traumatizing for my son. In Colorado, however, we had a very different experience. My son (as the person suffering) and I (as his primary support person) were both treated with a high level of respect and human dignity. We were listened to and taken seriously.”

Utah ranks last in the country when it comes to adult mental health, according to a new report released last month by the Kem C. Garden Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

For O’Leary, this statistic hits extremely close to home and her move is bittersweet. Though has been instrumental in providing hands-on skills trainings while also building out CONNECT Summit County’s extensive provider database and live Peer Navigation Services, she acknowledges she needs to do what is best for her son at this time.

From O’Leary’s perspective, there are some positive initiatives  in Utah but often the implementation of these programs fall short for a number of reasons related to agency cultures and policies. She offers the following insights.

Opportunities/changes in Utah’s Behavioral Health Services Field:

  • Utah needs to think in more ‘long-term’ ways about how to help people in crisis and not handle a crisis as a one-time incident to be stabilized. “A mental health crisis is an opportunity to link people into peer support, to enlist natural and family supports and to connect individuals to other helpful resources in their community, not just make a referral for mental health treatment. These additional efforts can lead to the individual feeling safe enough to address their behavioral health issues/challenges and follow through with treatment recommendations.
  • Utah needs to increase/expand access by providing 24/7 crisis walk-in centers, peer-run crisis centers, 24/7 mobile crisis teams and same-day mental health assessment and treatment in every county/ regional area. “Often when a person in mental distress finally decides to seek mental health treatment, they have to wait for an assessment/intake appointment and then wait again for a med appointment. By the time that happens – days to weeks later – the person has frequently changed their mind. We need to be able to get individuals linked into services the same day they decide to seek help.”
  • Communities, families, workplaces, places of worship and schools can learn directly from individuals who have experienced serious symptoms of mental illness (and who are now in recovery) about what helped and hurt them. “I think it’s important for all of us to deepen our understanding and learn how to be with a person struggling with mental illness/behavioral health disorders so that we can all know how to respond and be there for each other in times of mental distress.”
  • Utah has an opportunity to increase their responsiveness to the needs of individuals with mental illness and their family/friends/support people by increasing funding for peer support and family peer support services/programs throughout the state. “It is well known that peers can extend the clinical impact of people in treatment for behavioral health disorders, as well as help people engage with, stay engaged with and/or re-engage with treatment and services.”

According to the recently released report, suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 24 and almost 40 percent of Utah’s depressed youth ages 12 to 17 did not receive treatment for depression.

O’Leary applauds grassroots organizations like CONNECT Summit County for making a difference. “It has been a privilege and an honor to work here. Summit County is deeply committed to improving mental health services and CONNECT has a pulse on the community and can offer critical feedback from residents, providers and community partners. So, CONNECT plays an important advocacy role and helps shape the future of mental health services in Summit County.”

About CONNECT Summit County

CONNECT Summit County offers year-round educational programming for Summit County residents who are concerned about mental health issues facing their community. Their mission is to create a well-informed and stigma-free community with access to mental health services for all.  CONNECT Summit County’s website includes an extensive mental health resource directory to help residents find appropriate services.

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