Jeannie Ritter, Colorado’s former first lady, wants to break mental health stigma

Jeannie Ritter jokes that she could have chosen bicycle helmets as her “first lady cause”…

Jeannie Ritter, Colorado’s former first lady, wants to break mental health stigma

Jeannie Ritter jokes that she could have chosen bicycle helmets as her “first lady cause” while her husband, Bill, was Colorado governor. At least she could have counted the number of children who received a helmet and declared her goal achieved. 

Instead, the former teacher who grew up in a family affected by severe mental illness, chose something much messier. She spent four years traveling Colorado to talk about mental health, ditching the pantsuits early on for a jean jacket and cowboy boots, all part of her plan to seem more approachable and get people to open up about their struggles.

When the Ritters left the governor’s mansion in 2011, the former first spouse continued her mission, becoming a mental health ambassador for WellPower, which is Denver’s community mental health center. For the next decade, she spoke to clubs and forums across the state, and co-chaired a task force that helped rewrite Colorado’s civil commitment laws. Ritter, 64, recently retired, but remains an advocate for increased access to mental health care. 

In an interview with The Sun at her home in Denver’s Platt Park, Ritter praised a new law signed by Gov. Jared Polis that will allow psychologists to write mental health prescriptions. She also explained how artificial intelligence software could help overworked therapists determine which messages are the most urgent based on the stress in a caller’s voice.

Ritter is credited with elevating the conversation, quite literally, at a time when “mental health crisis” wasn’t a universal topic. When her husband took office in 2007, she attended mental health policy discussions in churches and basements. Later, she said, she was pushing the elevator button to the “highest floor in the building, like floor 12” to talk to executives and policymakers. 

Ritter spoke to The Sun about what’s become a lifelong goal to break stigma and build access to mental health care in Colorado. Here is part of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

SUN: Like many others, when Ritter talked about the importance of mental health reform, she referenced one person in her family with severe illness. Then she realized a year or so after becoming Colorado’s first spouse that she was thinking about it all wrong. 

Ritter’s sister had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the family grew up navigating mental hospitals, medications and stigma. After their mother died, Ritter took over caring for her sister, and even moved her and her two Chihuahuas into the governor’s mansion to help get her stabilized.

Jeannie Ritter outside her home in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

RITTER: I have a correction to make because during that time, I often cited my sister, who had a diagnosis. We were a family that navigated that whole thing. Institutions were new again, and the meds, and just the severity of her illness and how it impacted each of us.

And then I heard a woman speak and her point was: It’s not just one person in your family. Then I realized she was right. Like, I was trying to talk about this topic in a more narrow fashion about an individual, when, if I stepped back, it was like, wait a minute, what about the addiction in our family? What about my own anxiety? So that was very helpful to shift from talking about those individuals to all of us are somewhere on the continuum.

SUN: Unlike counting bike helmets, success is hard to measure when it comes to improving mental health. Ritter acknowleges that she didn’t accomplish some of her big ideas, including trying to coordinate all of the state’s suicide prevention programs under one agency. 

RITTER: There were things I thought I could change. I had a dreamy vision of unifying all the suicide prevention efforts in the state, which are heartbreaking, but one is named for Rachel and another is named for Jason and another is a name for this school … 

But what I celebrate is the link to science. Let’s start with compassion and try to get an understanding. But when brain science came on board, that was just fantastic. People could understand the impacts of brain injuries and soldiers returning from (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) with concussion injuries from explosives. We were normalizing it.

SUN: In 2007, Ritter felt like she was walking on eggshells the first few times she was invited to give speeches about mental health or attend conferences, where sometimes men were in one room and she was in another “talking to their wives.” She didn’t want to say the wrong words and offend people. She also did not feel like an expert at all, but she realized quickly that her first goal was to get people to open up. 

RITTER: People were like, “She’s a first lady. Let’s put her on this” and I was totally unprepared. I would finish with smaller groups, “Are there any questions? We can make this into a conversation.” It was buttoned lips, like nobody had anything to say. And I’m like, “Hey, this is crusty stuff, like maybe you don’t recognize your husband, he’s knocking off a six pack in front of the TV every night, falling asleep. This could be depression. He’s the only one at work and everybody else has lost their job and he’s got no cronies and men are crappy at making friends.” And nobody would say anything. And then when you go in the restroom, they just pounce on you. They’re like, “Oh, I can’t believe you said that because it’s just what my husband is doing.” But there’s no way they were going to raise their hand. No one wanted to be first.

SUN: Ritter said every community needs more people in a variety of jobs, from firefighters and bus drivers, to teachers and coaches, who are trained in how to help get people to the right mental health services. 

RITTER: I have firefighter friends, and they’re like, it’s the worst thing — people step over somebody who’s passed out and dial 911. Everybody has to respond, which is a huge cost. So what if you had a way to say, this young man, this young woman needs some support? I’m not going to be the one, but is there a number I can call where somebody can come and check on them. They are bus drivers and they think she’s drunk. We’re all in this together. You get this line, “I didn’t take this job to be a counselor.” That’s not what we’re asking you to do. We just want you to know what to do next. 

Somebody had a great line: We’re a small community, we don’t have a burn unit in this community. But we need people in this community, that, when we have somebody who is a serious burn victim, they know what to do with that burn victim immediately and where to get them next. What a great template for how we provide care.

SUN: In the dozen years after her husband was governor, people have gotten much more outspoken about mental health. When a young relative was going through severe depression, Ritter stepped in to help get her an appointment. Several members of the older generation wanted to keep it quiet, but the young person posted about the saga on her social media account. It was an example of how much more open the conversation has become, Ritter said. 

RITTER: Name me a gathering? You can’t have a city council meeting. You can’t have a school board meeting without it. This is a topic now that lives among us, and how long do we want to use the word crisis with it? It’s valuable sometimes to use the word crisis. It’s OK to say the word crisis, as long as we are not hiding behind that word. We get to flap our hands and it’s like hands on the cheek. But using the word crisis … it’s legit as long as it keeps the conversation moving forward.