Children's Hospital Colorado

Following State of Emergency Declaration, Families and Experts Seek Immediate Action From Policymakers to Turn Colorado’s Youth Mental Health Crisis Around

Children's Hospital Colorado | November 16, 2021

Today, parents, youth, a teacher, community providers, mental health professionals and advocates spoke at a media roundtable following Children’s Hospital Colorado’s youth mental health state of emergency declaration in May. They urged immediate investment in solutions that will provide much-needed mental health prevention and support services for children and youth in Colorado. Children’s Hospital Colorado, Healthier Colorado, Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care, and the Colorado Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics released The Children and Youth Mental Health Playbook which outlines actionable opportunities for policymakers to help curb Colorado’s prevailing mental health crisis.

A playbook for urgently prioritizing youth mental health

Government officials at the local, state, and federal levels have a responsibility, in partnership with families, healthcare providers, advocates and schools, to urgently prioritize mental health policies and funding allocations that will support children, youth and families. The Children and Youth Mental Health Playbook asks policymakers to allocate American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for children and youth mental health. Specifically, it calls on the Governor and Legislature to prioritize $150 million of the ARPA funding on mental health prevention, treatment and recovery services for kids. This represents one-third of the $450 million Governor Polis has earmarked for mental health, because children and youth make up one-third of Colorado’s population. The investment will assist in preventing generations of young Coloradans from growing up with untreated mental health needs.

Recommendations from The Playbook:

  • Reimagining a statewide system that works for kids and families, through the newly created Behavioral Health Administration at the state level;
  • Advancing local initiatives that can set a foundation and infrastructure to fund local mental health services across the continuum; and
  • Adopting changes at the federal level that will facilitate greater access to pediatric behavioral health through multiple channels including provider capacity expansion, Medicaid coverage requirements, elimination of restrictions on telehealth, and ensuring access to community and school-based mental health programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health concerns

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these concerns due to physical isolation, ongoing uncertainty, fear and grief. In May 2021, with children, families, schools, county governments and healthcare facilities at their breaking points, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency in youth mental health. Following the declaration, a coalition of stakeholders signed onto a letter laying out specific state-level ARPA investments and how the funding can be allocated. A national state of emergency has since been issued.

Whether at school, a family doctor’s office, a mental health provider or an emergency department, children and youth are presenting with mental health needs at record levels. Youth mental health providers are experiencing record patient volumes prompting waitlists and children going without services. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Colorado youth ages 10 to 18 and reports of youth depression and anxiety are at all-time highs.

These critical investments and solutions are needed to address the prevailing crisis

“The time to act is now,” said Healthier Colorado Executive Director Jake Williams. “Suicide should not be the leading cause of death for Colorado kids ages 10 to 18. This cannot continue to be our reality, and we are here this morning to continue our collective efforts to bring the relief that our children and youth deserve. The critical investment and solutions outlined in The Children and Youth Mental Health Playbook is needed to address our prevailing crisis.”

Children's Colorado sees a 73% surge in emergency mental health services

“At Children’s Colorado, the need for emergency mental health services has surged 73% over the past two years,” said David Brumbaugh, MD, Chief Medical Officer for Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Unfortunately, six months later, with the continued aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to reverberate throughout Colorado, we are still in a State of Emergency.”

This is a generational opportunity

“Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to make meaningful investments in the state’s mental health system through federal funding as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, also known as ARPA,” said Jenna Glover, PhD, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist. “We are calling on the Colorado congressional delegation to take advantage of this generational opportunity to invest in a system that works for kids by strengthening the mental health workforce, building on the success of telehealth, and enhancing mental health insurance parity to improve access-to-care.”

Youth perspective

“Both parents and their children have a voice,” said Ashley O’Day, a recent graduate of the Mental Health Youth Action Board at Children’s Hospital Colorado and a domestic violence advocate. “I’m only 18, and I have made it my mission to be transparent about mental health because it’s not something to be ashamed about. Families need to know, your children love you and their mental health conditions do not compromise their love for you. They need your help to navigate this process with them.”

Four in five students report depression and anxiety

“Two years ago, one in five of our students were reporting depression and anxiety. Today, that’s grown to four in five students now reporting depression and anxiety,” said Rebecca Doughty, program director of Four Corners Youth Clinics and representative of Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care. “I want to let that number sink in - four out of five students. Our state is still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we truly have a pandemic in children’s mental health as well.”

A parent's perspective

“The problems we are trying to solve are not gaps in the mental health system - they are actually Black Holes in the system,” said Jim Wiegand, a parent navigating the youth mental health system for his daughter. “We know more families going through similar struggles, and so many families are silent because they don’t have someone to speak for them. They should not have to fight this hard to get the care their kids need to heal and thrive. Families are a core component of the solutions that have been identified, and we are hopeful that change is coming.”

Teacher of the year calls for critical resources

“The strain on educators right now is real and the system is stretched,” said Gerardo Munoz, 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year and Colorado Education Association member. “My students are walking around with open wounds that need healing. If we don’t recognize the injury, my students can’t heal. As I lift up the stories of my students and educators across the state, I’m calling on our elected officials to act on these recommendations and deliver with the critical resources that are needed in children’s mental health.”

Pediatricians seeing more patients with suicidal thoughts

“As a pediatrician, I have the joy of getting to build trusting relationships with my patients and families, and I can help facilitate a safe place for kids to talk about what they need,” said Sophia Meharena, DO, a community physician with Every Child Pediatrics in Aurora and representative of the American Academy of Pediatrics - Colorado Chapter. “It’s no secret that the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic on children has heightened the number of patients that come into my clinic asking for help. This issue hit home for me recently when, on one Friday, 4 of my 16 patients confided in me that they were having suicidal thoughts.”

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