When Don Mares welcomed guests into his office at Mental Health America of Colorado, they would see a photograph of his brother, Fred, on his desk. Fred is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has experienced debilitating anxiety disorder and severe depression. Don kept the picture there to remind people that almost every Colorado family is affected by mental illness and in order to help the afflicted, we must remove societal stigma by sharing personal stories.
Prior to becoming CEO of Mental Health America of Colorado (MHAC), a post he held until January of this year, Mares struggled with how to help his brother who is living out of state. According to Laura Cordes, Vice President of External Affairs and Chief Operating Officer at MHAC, “When Don’s brother needed help, an affiliate in Missouri connected them with resources. This attempt at navigating the system gave Don firsthand experience with how difficult the issue can be and helped him call public attention to mental health.”
As the City of Denver’s new Director of the Department of Human Services, Mares faces what he calls, “The biggest professional challenge I have ever had.” Given all the positions he has held in a distinguished public service career, that’s saying something. It is both a personal and professional endeavor for Mares to use his new position to continue the conversation on mental health and integrating mental health issues into other public policy debate including homelessness and substance abuse. “As Don would say,” according to Cordes, “there is no health without mental health.”
At the end of last year, Mares was appointed Executive Director of a newly created Office of Behavioral Strategies, serving as the lead on the city’s behavioral health efforts. After the Denver Mayor’s election of 2015, Mares was appointed to head the Department of Human Services, and he took the Office of Behavioral Strategies with him, moving it from the Department of Safety. With all his duties combined, Mares is responsible for most social services in Denver including children’s and family affairs, homelessness, public health, crime prevention and substance abuse. His office handles both direct services as well as public policy created to support these issues.
“Our department is doing so many things well that people don’t know about. Our challenge is making sure people know the things we are doing right while continuing to improve all our systems,” said Mares.
Besides the needs of his brother Fred, it seems Don is also driven by the legacy of his community-minded mother, Priscilla, who died in 1995. Priscilla and her siblings were deeply involved in the always difficult north Denver political scene and she served the Democratic Party in neighborhood leadership positions, supported northside candidates, and spent time as the Executive Secretary of the Latin American Education Foundation.
As a Denver native, Mares was steeped in north Denver politics but also high quality education. He is a graduate of Regis High School and Stanford University, and earned a law degree from Penn. Mares began his elected service as a state legislator in 1989-1995 and later served as the Executive Director of the Department of Labor and Employment under Gov. Bill Ritter.
Mares remains the only Latino ever elected Auditor in the City and County of Denver. He was first elected in 1995 and re-elected in 1999, the first Auditor to be elected to successive terms in almost 25 years. He is credited with bringing the department into the digital age with an interactive web site and the dissemination of information never before so available to the Denver public.
The Auditor’s seat allowed Mares to assemble a well-known and well-funded political machine that built upon his previous electoral service. In 2003 he was second in voting in a crowded general election for Denver Mayor, winning just over 22 percent of the vote. He lost in the runoff to businessman John Hickenlooper to fill the Denver mayor’s seat.
Even with such a storied career, it seems Mares is just getting started with some of his most important work. For sharing his family’s story of mental health issues, for his willingness to integrate mental health with other public policy issues, and for helping to remove the stigma associated with mental health challenges, our community should not only be cheering him on, but participating in the conversation.