Making mental health a mission

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AURORA | In the mid-1950s, Ruth Ryan noticed that people with mental illnesses were being neglected in the sphere of health care.

She saw an opportunity for a challenge, and snagged it.

“I was interested in it when a lot of people during that particular time weren’t interested in it,” said Ryan, 77, who began working at the Illinois State Mental Hospital in 1956 after graduating from nursing school in Springfield, Ill., that same year.

In 1983, she joined the Aurora Mental Health board of directors, and was honored with the city’s annual Circle of Life award on Sept. 12 for continuing to volunteer in mental health issues and city projects.

“She’s one of those people in Aurora that has just been absolutely committed to this city and its quality of life,” said Randy Stith, executive director of Aurora Mental Health, who nominated her for the award.

Stith said Ryan never takes herself too seriously, despite the fact that she has had a triumphant career that has spanned more than four decades.

Ryan was previously a nurse specialist at the Iowa Psychopathic Hospital, a clinical instructor at the Mental Health University of Iowa, and most recently a clinical nurse specialist and associate director of nursing at Denver General Hospital.

Stith gushed about Ryan’s volunteer work with Aurora Mental Health, saying she was a crucial part of developing a foundation for children back in the 1980s when it was hard to get children’s mental health services paid for by insurance companies.

“She was a part of trying to find a way to address that need,” he said.

Ryan also helped develop residential programs for people with mental illnesses who needed help transitioning from hospitals back into the community.

“What’s been a pretty constant concern for her is what do you do with people who have mental illnesses and can’t live with a family or need additional help to live independently in the community,” Stith said.

Ryan has witnessed monumental changes in the mental health arena since she started her career in 1956.

At that time, nurses and doctors were simply focused on trying to control behavior, rather than getting to the root of the problem and solving it, Ryan said.

Since then, the federal government has poured significant amounts of money into mental health care, and new medications have had a profound affect on people with mental illnesses, she said.

Ryan, an Illinois native, moved to Aurora in 1982 and started volunteering with Aurora Mental Health shortly after. She encourages other people to volunteer, if only as a way to meet people while helping improve the community.

“I think everybody should volunteer during at least some part of their life,” she said.

The Circle of Life award is given annually to someone who has made a lasting impact in the community.

Each year since 1991, different types of trees ranging from English Oaks and Blue Spruces to American elms and crab apples have been planted in Moorhead Park in honor of the Circle of Life award winners.

Ryan, a lover of mystery books and the Internet, chose a sugar maple to be planted in her honor, because it reminds her of home.

“I like the leaves in the fall, I miss that about the Midwest,” she said.

 

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]