Colorado health leaders ask state lawmakers to use $150 million to address teen mental health crisis

Colorado pediatric health leaders on Tuesday called for Gov. Jared Polis and state lawmakers to use $150 million in federal money to rebuild the state’s mental health system for children and teens, saying not enough services exist to help the growing crisis.

Representatives from Children’s Hospital Colorado and other providers hosted a virtual roundtable during which they painted a dire picture of the state of mental health among young Coloradans — one that has only worsened since they declared a pediatric mental health “state of emergency” six months ago.

Children and teens are experiencing higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health issues, they said. And Children’s Hospital Colorado has recorded more than 5,000 emergency mental health visits for children across its entire system from January until mid-October.

“Unfortunately, we are still in a state of emergency,” said Dr. David Brumbaugh, chief medical officer of Children’s Hospital.

Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, however, such deaths are less common among children and teens. Still, it was the leading cause of death for Colorado children and teens until last year.

On Tuesday morning alone, the Children’s Hospital’s system had more than 20 children waiting in its emergency departments for an inpatient mental health bed, he said.

Another pediatrician, Dr. Sophia Meharena, said that four of the 16 patients she treated on a recent Friday afternoon told her they had suicidal thoughts.

“It is no secret that the strain of the pandemic on an already fragile group of youth has heightened the number of patients that come into (the) clinic asking for help,” she said.

Those who participated in the roundtable included Gerardo Munoz, the 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year; representatives with Healthier Colorado and Rebecca Doughty, with Four Corners Youth Clinics as part of the Colorado Association of School-Based Health Clinics.

They called on state lawmakers, including the governor, to use a portion of the money Colorado will receive through the American Rescue Plan Act to expand pediatric mental health services and workforce.

They detailed a range of ways this could be achieved, including by supporting a therapist fellowship training program to help new graduates get clinical hours, while providing them a stipend, according to a Sept. 16 letter sent to Colorado’s Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force.

The state could also use part of the $150 million toward increasing the presence of health professionals in schools and allocate more money to school-based health centers, according to the letter.

“COVID has taken a lot from our kids and we, truly, at this moment have an incredible opportunity to give them something they desperately need,” said Jenna Glover, director of psychology training at Children’s Hospital.

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