SOUTHERN COLORADO — After a difficult school year for children across Colorado, state lawmakers are working to provide free mental health screenings and therapy to help them rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Bill 21-1258would require the state to create a temporary youth mental health services program in the office of behavioral health within the department of human services by May 31. The program would allow up to three free mental health sessions for every Coloradan age 18 and younger and providers would be reimbursed through the program.
For many children and young adults across the state, the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on their mental health.
"For the pandemic specifically, it really does come down to virtual impacts and not being able to really connect on the same level with people. If you're a little older or in college, not being able to meet people," said Johneth Price, Colorado student.
"Switching to online school, college courses, I feel like I got robbed of socializing, and networking with people," said Katia Morquecho, Youth Advisor at Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health.
With students experiencing enormous disruptions to school, social activities, and support networks, both girls say more mental health resources are needed more than ever before.
"COVID has isolated everybody to where they have sat with their demons and sometimes those demons have won," said Morquecho.
"I think resources are the most important thing and within the impacts of the pandemic. A lot of issues that youth have when trying to address mental health struggles is a lack of being able to find resources and afford them. This bill addresses both of those components," said Price.
Prompting legislators to create a bill that would allocate $9 million to reimburse providers for mental health services, which may be in person or virtual.
"Primarily it's going to be telehealth, we've really moved successfully into a telehealth society. We know there will be areas in the state where we can't find anybody for you to go in person but we are going to try," said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, (D) Commerce City. "For providers, reimbursement rates are the same for in-person and telehealth."
Michaelson Jenet says additional services will help children prepare for in-person learning.
"When they go back to school, they are going to have a plan. How do I handle the stress and anxiety, how do I feel being close to someone when I haven't been close to someone in a really time," said Michaelson Jenet.
She says, students will be connected to a medical professional ideally in their insurance network. If they don't have insurance or medicare they'll still be connected with someone.
According to the bill, the Colorado crisis services hotline has experienced a thirty percent increase in calls and texts, and Children’s Hospital Colorado has seen a ten percent increase in the number of kids who visit the psychiatric emergency department due to thoughts of suicide.
Mental Health advocates across the state have shown support for the bill, including Mental Health Colorado.
“The coronavirus crisis has brought with it all kinds of grief, loneliness, disengagement, and stress, that have disrupted the lives of our kids,” said Vincent Atchity, President and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. “The challenges of this last year will likely continue to affect kids past the pandemic and, possibly, across their lifespans. Early intervention is known to be effective in promoting healthy outcomes…the sooner the better.”
This legislative effort, in support of pandemic recovery, illustrates Colorado’s commitment to a stronger start for all children and signals to the thousands of young people and their families who have struggled over the past year that their mental health needs are acknowledged and will not go unmet.
The program would run until June 2022 under the proposal.