STATEWIDE — In July of 2021, Governor Jared Polis signed a bill into law which would provide access to free mental health and substance use disorder services for youth.

Mental health care professionals said that the bill came at the perfect time — during the COVID-19 pandemic when uncertainty and anxiety combined with school and isolation caused mental health to take a turn.

I Matter legislation came from the increased mental health needs and the concerning numbers of suicides in youth in our state. And El Paso County is not unique to that,” said Katie Blickenderfer, Diversus Health Chief Clinical Officer.

Elizabeth Owens talks about what got the ball rolling for “I Matter”. Credit: Rachel Saurer

The idea behind the I Matter legislation was to address these concerns.

“Our goal with this is to really make sure that they youth have the supports that they need and to remove some of those barriers to care like cost and ease of access,” said Elizabeth Owens, co-deputy Director of Programs at the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health.

So far, the program has provided 1,300 therapy sessions for youth with a reportedly many hundreds more scheduled.

Colorado government officials say this free youth mental health care could be the first of its kind. Credit: File

“Every kid that we’re able to help through this program is very, very, very exciting. So, I think what it tells me is we are meeting an unmet need. The youth and their parents really want access to care. They just maybe didn’t know where to go,” Owens said.

Behavioral health experts said they hope this program will continue to see an increase in sessions so more youth can seek help as soon as possible.

“It’s important, if there is a problem, to tackle that issue as early as possible in order to resolve the issue or make the treatment recommendations,” said Imad Melhem, Chief Medical Officer at Diversus Health.

Imad Melhem said once you spot the warning signs to seek mental health care right away. Credit: Rachel Saurer

Mental health specialists said warning signs can include any behavioral change that impacts performance in school or sports, physical concerns or even fidgeting and being unable to sit still.

I Matter is available to anyone under the age of 18 or 21 and younger if they are receiving Special Education services.

“If you go through and you take the survey and you go to schedule you will be able to schedule a telehealth appointment immediately,” Owens said.

Partners of the program said they’re encouraging parents and kids not to hesitate in scheduling therapy sessions through I Matter.