Families, health experts want policymakers to take action to turn around children and youth mental health crisis

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STATEWIDE – Children’s Hospital Colorado hosted a media roundtable featuring parents, youth, a teacher, community providers, mental health professionals and advocates, each of whom addressed CHC’s youth mental health state of emergency declaration in May of 2021.

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, a publication designed to help policymakers to help curb Colorado’s prevailing mental health crisis.

A main focus of the playbook is to partner local legislation with families, healthcare providers, advocates and schools in order to support youth. It asks the Governor Jared Polis and the state legislature to prioritize $150 million of the ARPA funding on mental health prevention, treatment and recovery services for kids.

This number represents one-third of the $450 million Governor Polis has earmarked for mental health, which will in turn prevent generations of young Coloradans from growing up with untreated mental health needs.

The publication recommends the following for a statewide mental health intiative:

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

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health issues in all ages since its start in March of 2020. In May 2021, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency in youth mental health, after which came a coalition of stakeholders who 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.

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.

“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.”

“At Children’s Colorado, the need for emergency mental health services has surged 73% over the past two years,” said Dr. David Brumbaugh, 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.”

“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, clinical child/adolescent psychologist and director of psychology training at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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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