It has been troubling to witness the steep decline in the mental health of Colorado’s youth. It is even more troubling to see the decline intensified by pandemic pressures.
Children’s Hospital Colorado recently declared children’s mental health a “state of emergency,” as it is seeing twice as many patients reporting increased anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation.
Alarm bells should be going off. We cannot wait to fix these issues; our youth’s well-being depends on it. At the Capitol, we are taking action together to provide our youth with the resources they need to feel safe, heard and supported.
Last year, the Legislature created the “I Matter” program, sending $9 million into a new, temporary resource for students. It offered two years of free online therapy for youth 18 or younger; 21 or younger for special education students. The original program offered three therapy sessions, but recent legislation both upped that number to six and expanded to offering it for two more years with federal pandemic relief funding.
The program has been wildly successful. Since the program’s launch, more than 1,900 youth in 48 Colorado counties have participated in at least one therapy session. It has been particularly successful in rural areas, where access to counseling is often limited, expensive or far away.
Parents and students can sign up by visiting imattercolorado.org, which connects them with a counselor best suited to their needs.
Another bill, Senate Bill 22-147, directs $11.1 million to three programs aimed at improving access to mental health and substance use treatment in public schools. About $5 million will go to an existing program in the Colorado Department of Education that provides matching grants to schools to help them hire behavioral health workers, provide training and resources for school staff, and serve students suffering from mental illness or addiction.
Another $1.5 million will go to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s grant program to fund school-based health centers, where youth can receive medical care. The bill will also set up a program within the University of Colorado system to supply primary care providers with resources they need to begin identifying and treating behavioral health conditions in children.
Further addressing school and community safety, we are also working on House Bill 22-1234, which focuses on building strong communities and preventing acts of violence that threaten human life, which often target a discernible population of individuals. And House Bill 22-1052 will make it easier for students to access mental health needs by having the numbers for Safe2Tell and Colorado Crisis Services on every student ID and on posters throughout the school.
In Colorado, we want to see every student have the opportunity to succeed. Many schools are experiencing an uptick in the number of behavioral health incidents, and the pandemic has only added to the stress students are feeling. Working together, we can address the situations as they arise, navigating their solution to improve outcomes for all Colorado students.
Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, is serving her third term representing La Plata, Archuleta, San Juan, Ouray, Hinsdale and Gunnison counties. She has been a journalist and teacher.