When the nation went into lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, college students began returning to Colorado. That’s when state Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet started receiving desperate emails from parents. It turns out that since their child’s psychologist was out-of-state, they couldn’t legally engage in teletherapy while in Colorado.

“I was also hearing directly from parents about their fears of their children’s depression and their isolation,” Jenet says. “And primarily, what does it look like to stop the suicidality that they were seeing in their kids?”

Last year, mental health–related emergency department visits nationwide were up 31 percent among adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17, compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado reported seeing double the number of patients dealing with increased anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation and social disconnectedness.

To address these issues, Jenet sponsored HB-1258, which allocated $9 million toward creating “I Matter”—a program that provides any youth aged 18 and younger, regardless of insurance status, with the opportunity to receive a free mental health screening. I Matter’s mental health screening assesses personal risk and substance abuse, and then pairs youth with a clinician best suited to meet their needs. (I Matter can accommodate individuals 21 and younger if they receive special education services.) Next, kids are provided with three free, 45-minute mental health sessions.

The platform, which launched October 27, allows parents to sign up their children for services. Kids under 12 must be accompanied during the sign-up process and be screened with a guardian present. The screening, which can be taken online, includes questions that address topics such as depression, anxiety, school attendance, and bullying.

hompage for I Matter
Image courtesy of Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health

Screening scores can indicate whether a child is at high or low risk, and whether they need to be directed to crisis services. Regardless of how they score, all children can receive treatment. Upon completion of the process, participants must consent to the release of screening information to their chosen therapist, who will then use this information to determine how to best maximize the three sessions offered, for the most part, through telehealth. The Office of Behavioral Health has already contracted with 11 community health centers throughout the state for the use of their clinicians (like Mental Health Center of Denver and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health), as well as other independent professionals.

“The therapy sessions would be, from a clinician’s perspective, geared around what was in the screening,” says Paul Barnett, director of children, youth, and family at the Office of Behavioral Health. “What symptoms did they endorse? Did they talk about depression or anxiety? Domestic violence in the home?” There is the possibility, if funding is still available, for youth to receive additional therapy sessions.

Following the passage of HB-1258 in June, the Office of Behavioral Health contracted Signal Behavioral Health in August to create the inclusive platform. And while I Matter is only funded until June 30, 2022, Liz Owens, director of policy and communications at the Office of Behavioral Health, believes this program can have a huge impact in treating kids’ behavioral health needs more efficiently.

“We really have an opportunity here to get people services … for free,” Owens says, “and to maybe set up lasting relationships with youth taking care of their mental health, which I think is incredible. Because when else will we have such a chance to develop that culture of prioritizing mental health?”

The need is obvious. When it comes to children and mental health, Colorado lags behind other states. For instance, in 2020, 26,707 children under the age of 21 were classified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as having a severe emotional disturbance. In the 2021 “State of Mental Health in American” report by Mental Health America, the Centennial State ranked 42nd for prevalence of youth mental illness and access to care. The situation became so dire this year that on May 25, officials from The Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a pediatric mental health state of emergency.

“We know that the youth in our state have spent a year plus with their lives entirely disrupted,” Owens says. “Maybe they have lost their typical supports, whether that’s going to school or seeing their friends like they used to. A lot of that has led to increased behavioral health needs.”

Jenet considers HB-1258 of the most important pieces of legislation that she has had the opportunity to pass. “Just the idea of letting kids get a toe into what therapy looks like I think can be a game-changer for a lot of kids that are afraid,” she says. “We hear from kids who present with suicidality the sentence: ‘I don’t want to be a burden.’ They will have this opportunity to seek help and with help, maybe get beyond the I don’t want to be a burden feeling and continue on a therapeutic journey that will help them grow into healthy adolescents.”

(Read More: Colorado Isn’t Prepared to Deal With the Mental Fallout from COVID)