Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
May 13, 2021
Kiara Kuenzler | Jefferson Center for Mental Health
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Kiara Kuenzler, and I’m honored to be the President and CEO of Jefferson Center for Mental Health. Jefferson Center is a community-focused non-profit provider of mental health and substance use disorder treatment. We’ve been serving the West Metro and central front range mountains of Colorado for 63 years. Jefferson Center serves more than 30,000 people each year with a continuum of services from prevention and outreach, treatment and recovery, and emergency services for people of all ages and all walks of life. We recognize the importance of meeting people where they are at on their journey and offer wrap-around services and supports to help individuals and families access basic benefits, obtain stable housing, employment, and overall wellness.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
From my very first internship in high school working with a community mental health center in Indiana, to obtaining my doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Denver and Post Doctorate training at the University of Colorado, through years of providing therapy to individuals and families, teaching, and progressive leadership roles, to becoming the CEO of Jefferson Center three years ago, I have followed my innate passion for creating the opportunity for positive growth and change in people’s lives. I truly had no idea where my career was headed when I first started to study psychology, but having incredible mentors and saying yes to opportunities got me to the place I am today. Like many of us, people in my family have struggled with mental health disorders and addiction. My brother died of a drug overdose four years ago, leaving my family and me grieving our loss and even more committed to making systemic changes that could save the lives of others in similar circumstances.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
As human beings, I believe we have a basic right to access the tools and resources to thrive and to find joy, meaningful connection, and a sense of belonging. We have a right to be understood, supported, and challenged to overcome all that life throws at us. My purpose is to make sure that ALL people know where to turn and can get the services that they need when they are struggling with their mental wellbeing or struggling with an addiction. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or language, all people deserve to feel safe in asking for help and to be treated with dignity, respect, and acceptance on their journey.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
Creating a behavioral health care delivery system that is equitable and accessible to all who need it is a challenge. Though dramatically improved, our culture still struggles with shame and stigma associated with mental health disorders, and especially addiction. As a non-profit, we are committed to offering services and access for those without traditional insurance or the ability to pay for services out of pocket, which means we are focused on advocating at the state level and with a wide range of funders, to ensure that no one is left behind within the behavioral healthcare system. Changing the culture and mental health mindset from one that emphasizes “pulling yourself up from your bootstraps” to one that celebrates differences and encourages supporting each other and connection within our community is a critical part of shifting our fundamental beliefs and acceptance of ourselves and others.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
I am most inspired by the many clients I have worked with over the years who have undergone extreme challenges in their lives, from severe trauma to disabling depression or anxiety and everything in between. These children and adults have taught me the power of resilience, of strength to endure the unthinkable, and the ability we all have to find moments of joy and the path to meaning in our lives. I am also inspired by the hundreds of behavioral health professionals I know who commit themselves to this incredibly difficult work, often without enough recognition, compensation, and support, but who do it because they know it makes a difference.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
Completely eliminating the stigma of mental health and substance use disorders, so that talking about our mental health is just as comfortable as talking about what we had to eat that day. Ensuring that there are enough resources (funding, workforce, accessible housing, and jobs) for anyone needing mental health care or addiction treatment to access. Creating places and systems of care that promote a sense of belonging, equity, and connection.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
There is a dramatic shortage of behavioral health professionals to meet an increasing need in this country. There are simply not enough people to do this important work. We need to figure out how to grow and strengthen the workforce with competitive salaries, opportunities for support, development, and growth, and to take care of our front-line team. Additionally, funding for non-profit behavioral health is often not stable or reliable enough to create strong systems that we can count on to be there for those without the resources needed to access care out of pocket. We need sustainable funding to support the capacity that is needed.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
Each one of us has a unique story to tell, a reason why our lives have unfolded the way that they have, and a set of circumstances that have contributed to who we are and why we struggle. You don’t need to understand or condone every belief or behavior, but each one of us deserves access to services and treatment that can get us on the path to recovery and find joy and purpose in our lives. People have the capacity for remarkable and powerful change.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Anais Nin
Each of us holds infinite possibilities for what comes next in our lives. It is not an easy task to leap from safety to see what is possible, but sometimes it is necessary.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
Educate yourself and become aware of how mental health and substance use disorders impact those around you. Be attuned to your friends, family, and neighbors to be able to recognize when they might need help. There are a number of resources and ways to get involved on our website. Take a Mental Health First Aid class or suicide prevention training to be an active positive resource in your community. If you, or someone you know needs resources or support, don’t hesitate to reach out and seek treatment. Find opportunities to donate, volunteer, and support non-profit community mental health. Above all, treat people with kindness.
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