Colorado kids are not alright. Nearly a year after Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency for youth mental health, local pediatric emergency rooms are still overflowing with young residents suffering from severe mental illness.
“The number of kids who are experiencing significant mental health episodes continues to be at crisis level,” says Heidi Baskfield, vice president of population health and advocacy at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “And the number of children who are engaged in self-harm behavior, including attempting to take their own life, continues to be at record level.” Across the entire Children’s Hospital Colorado pediatric system, 25 percent more kids came to emergency departments due to a mental health crisis from January 1 to March 15, 2022, compared to the same time period in 2021.
In Denver Public Schools (DPS), kids have been feeling anxious and reporting more symptoms of depressive mood since the pandemic began, says Meredith Fatseas, manager of social work and mental health for the district. Though DPS has hired 162 additional school social workers and psychologists in the past five years (a 94 percent increase), on top of expanding its suicide prevention programming, Fatseas says schools still don’t have enough resources to help struggling kids. It’s hard to pinpoint a sole cause for this uptick in mental health concerns, Fatseas says, explaining that it’s likely due to a confluence of factors, including COVID-19, racial injustice, and increasingly polarized views in American society.
In the past year, however, there’s been an increasing amount of attention drawn to Colorado’s youth mental health crisis, and initial efforts to improve the situation are already underway. Colorado lawmakers last year passed HB-1258, also known as Rapid Mental Health Response for Colorado Youth, which created a program that provides kids with up to six free therapy sessions after they complete an online needs assessment. The program, called I Matter and coordinated through the state’s Office of Behavioral Health, is a “real resource for short-term intervention,” says Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. The catch: I Matter is only scheduled to run through June 30 this year, though Atchity says there’s currently an effort underway to extend it.
A task force dedicated to overhauling the state’s Office of Behavioral Health and creating a Behavioral Health Administration also wrapped its work in January. Atchity, who served on the task force, says the work centered on making recommendations for how to use $450 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to improve behavioral health in our state. “Children’s mental health was a key area of focus for that work,” says Atchity. The group recommended that about $110 to $140 million of the funds go toward improving youth mental health resources, including inpatient residential care, outpatient care, substance use disorder care, respite care for families, care navigation and coordination, and school mental health resources, Atchity says.
Unfortunately, though, these are only one-time funds allocated as a result of the pandemic. And when that money dries up, the state will need additional federal support to keep the resulting programs running, says Baskfield. Moreover, the task force recommendations are just that—recommendations. They need to be enacted into law during the current legislative session in order to go into effect. And even if-slash-when that happens, it will likely be years before perceptible change is realized. Right now, the bills are in the process of being introduced, says Atchity. “The way all this works is, it’s freaking slow,” he says.
A big challenge thwarting progress is the workforce shortage impacting many industries, including mental health care. Children’s Hospital Colorado pledged last May to increase their mental health inpatient, outpatient, and day services by more than 50 percent by March 2022. But that goal is still a work in progress due to staffing limitations. “We have not been able to hire as many people as quickly as we would like,” explains Baskfield.
Recent facility closures are further compounding the crisis. “We just continue to see more and more facilities serving kids with mental health issues close up shop,” says Atchity. These closures then lead to a growing number of kids trying to access care in emergency departments, explains Baskfield. “We’re seeing kids who are living—literally living—days, weeks, sometimes months on end in emergency departments,” she says.
With limited resources—and a long road ahead before substantial change at the state level is realized—how can we help kids who are currently struggling with mental health? Baskfield recommends parents consider completing training programs through organizations like Partners for Children’s Mental Health, and/or Mental Health First Aid training through the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council. “That gives parents the ability to have some sense of how to support their children in that moment,” Baskfield explains. Parents can also discuss mental health concerns with their kids’ primary care doctor, as an increasing number of those providers are making resources available to support youth mental health, Baskfield adds.
Within DPS, Fatseas suggests parents reach out to a psychologist or social worker at their kid’s school for resources as well as referrals to outside providers. There’s also the I Matter program, which, as mentioned, provides kids with up to six free therapy sessions.
Looking ahead, Baskfield hopes the recent progress made to combat Colorado’s youth mental health crisis will morph into larger, long-term changes. “We can’t just say, ‘We created a Behavioral Health Administration, and now our job is done,’ ” she says.“That is really the starting point, not the ending point.”
If you or someone you know is in immediate crisis, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.