Panel pushes solutions to Colorado's youth mental health crisis

Children's Hospital Colorado, partners unveil playbook

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Not letting up on federal and state lawmakers, Children's Hospital Colorado held another roundtable discussion to push the message that action needs to be taken immediately to address growing mental health crisis for young patients.

In June, Children's held similar discussions, officially declaring a state of emergency due to a rise in youth suicide attempts and emergency rooms filling up with young psychiatric patients awaiting proper treatment.

The most recent roundtable, held virtually Nov. 16, continued discussions about the growing crisis, and this time, the Aurora-based hospital system -- with campuses in Highlands Ranch and Broomfield and facilities across metro Denver -- came equipped with solutions, as it unveiled its "Children and Youth Mental Health Playbook."

In creating the playbook, Children's collaborated with Healthier Colorado, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Colorado Education Association, Partners for Children's Mental Health and Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado, said suicide should not be the leading cause of death for children.

Healthier Colorado is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that says it is dedicated to raising the voices of Coloradans in the public policy process to improve the health of the state's residents.

Williams, along with a panel of speakers at the Nov. 16 forum, said local, state and federal lawmakers have to step up to address the growing mental health crisis that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

According to the playbook, like many states, Colorado has a severe shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists and psychologist, leading to access-to-care gaps for children and youth. The playbook estimates that only 22% of youth who have mental illness with severe impairments are receiving care.

Jim Weigand, a Jefferson County father of seven, participated in the discussions, sharing a story about his adopted daughter who has struggled with mental health. Wiegand said that to get the right care for his daughter, his family had to look outside of Colorado, placing her at a facility in Georgia.

Wiegand said the Georgia facility helped his daughter over 15 months, putting a strain on the family to travel to see her with the added obstacles created by the pandemic.

Wiegand said his daughter is home now and doing well but stressed how frustrating it has been to get help in Colorado. Weigand said he is lucky that his family has the means to take the steps they did, noting that he has friends in similar situations where their children are not getting proper assistance.

Dr. Sophie Meharena, of Every Child Pediatrics, a chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the system is getting overwhelmed. Meharena described one Friday afternoon where four of her 16 patients told her they were having suicidal thoughts.

Meharena said parents are overwhelmed in not knowing what to do and the industry is overwhelmed because it does not have the facilities, resources or workforce to address the continually growing number of patients in need of mental health intervention.

“Without coordinated and consistent resources and access for all, we cannot have a sustainable system,” Meharena said. “Getting the mechanics right is key to a sustainable system to address the needs in Colorado. Investing in children's mental health is investing in this country's future.”

In presenting solutions to the problem, the playbook points to local policy changes that should include more federal funding with a local impact and more local infrastructure for sustainable funding.

The panel pointed to the funds coming from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 where millions have been earmarked for states to use for mental health. Panel members are asking Colorado lawmakers to designate one third, or $150 million, of all the funds to youth mental health. The state got $450 million from the American Rescue Plan.

Williams said this is a fair amount to ask for given that Colorado youth and young adults under the age of 24 make up 31% of the state's population.

Zach Zaslow, director of government affairs at Children's, said funding cannot stop with the American Rescue Plan. For actual changes in Colorado, Zaslow said lawmakers at the state and federal levels must commit to fixing the crisis by creating sustainable programs and funding beyond 2021.

By creating the sustainable programs, Zaslow said children and youth will be able to get the care they need before a crisis.

Meharena said part of the problem is the system is designed to be reactive rather than proactive.

As part of the solution, the multi-agency playbook calls for state policies to prioritize children and youth mental health through continued federal funding investments and to make sure the new Behavioral Health Administration is child focused.

Other solutions addressed by the panel include pushing lawmakers to change how the health care system separates physical and mental health. Currently, CHC Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Brumbaugh said the way insurance companies manage mental health makes it hard for families to afford proper care.

Creating more virtual options for rural communities is also a solution, Zaslow said.

Rebecca Doughty -- program director of Four Corners Youth Clinics, a member of the Colorado Association of School-Based Health Clinics -- said a shortage of trained psychologists and staff is a major problem in rural communities.

Zaslow said having the ability to speak to qualified professionals without having to drive to Aurora would help get help to the young people struggling beyond the Front Range.

Dr. Jenna Glover, a Children's clinical psychologist, said the playbook the panel is introducing offers tangible information that will show lawmakers how they can begin to repair a broken system.

Glover and members of the panel are urging the public to push lawmakers at all levels to start making mental health care for youth a priority.

VIDEO: See a Rocky Mountain PBS video report on this story by clicking here.

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