SOUTHERN COLORADO — The Behavioral Health Recovery Act, a dedicated 100 million dollars from the American Rescue Plan being spent on urgent mental health needs, has passed out of the Colorado State Legislature.
Before the bill passed, Children's Hospital Colorado pushed legislators to allocate more of the money to pediatric mental health needs. For the first time ever, on May 25, Children's Hospital declared a 'State of Emergency' for youth mental health.
"It's different now. So, I would have never been attuned to whether or not my six and eight year old would ever have thoughts of self-harm, but we are seeing children as young as seven engaging in this behavior," said Heidi Baskfield, the vice president of population health and advocacy for Children's Hospital.
The hospital system is seeing twice as many patients reporting increased anxiety, depression, or isolation when compared to numbers from before the pandemic. Behavioral health emergency department visits in 2021 have increased by 72% over the same time period two years ago.
Colorado is among the worst states in the country when it comes to addressing pediatric mental health. According to those with Children's Hospital, the state ranks at #48. The unprecedented volume of pediatric mental health challenges and the inability to meet the need has led to many children being sent out of state for treatment.
"It is expensive to send kids out of state. So, it is quite the irony that instead of putting the money into the infrastructure here, we're paying those dollars to ship them elsewhere," said Baskfield.
"The challenge that we have in the state is we're starting with very little. So, we're already so far behind, that the level of investment required to get us to a much better space is very intense."
Baskfield said things like anxiety, depression, or self-harm can be precursors for suicidal ideations. All of those challenges are being reported in record numbers this year. Baskfield said the pandemic is a very real factor contributing to the increase, as kids have dealt with a variety of stressful factors related to dramatic changes in both their social and personal lives. "When you start stacking these kinds of things on top of one another, you really start putting young people in a very difficult position," said Baskfield.
12-year-old Kate Hartman is growing up in Denver and said her anxiety increased during the pandemic.
"I lost touch with a couple of friends, which was really hard on me because I have anxiety, and I started to worry that we lost touch because I wasn't good enough... I got so nervous, and I eventually just got really sad, and I felt isolated, and I felt like nobody cared... My anxiety started really building around fall, winter when I was able to complete some of my work but not all of it. And I was having a hard time getting everything turned in on time because I would get so distracted," explained Hartman.
Hartman was uniquely prepared to handle this level of stress because she had learned about mental health challenges in her past. "When I was in second grade, it started in kindergarten, but I was bullied incredibly badly, and I got just taunted all the time. And there were so many rumors, and it was hard because I was so young and I didn't know how to cope with it then, and it felt so personal to me, and I believed all the stuff that people said about me," said Hartman.
The bullying worsened, and on Valentine's Day in 2017, Hartman "told my parents that I didn't want to live anymore." She was only eight years old at the time.
Hartman's parents consulted with a psychologist, who told them it would be best to get her emergency care. She was taken to the emergency room at Children's Hospital.
"It's a scary feeling to think that you can't keep your kids safe... Had things gone differently back in 2017, there's a chance she may not be sitting with us today and being able to spread that story... There's so much stigma, and misunderstanding, and just denial toward treating mental health, and we're not at a place where we can do that anymore," said Kate's mom, Hope Hartman.
Hartman used the skills she learned to manage her anxiety during the pandemic. She knows to take deep breaths, make time for activities she enjoys and will split up her schoolwork into more manageable chunks. "Mental health is such an important topic, and we need to keep talking about it, to break the stigma and make sure that people are more open and they feel more comfortable to share their feelings because we all feel down sometimes," said Hartman.
Those with Children's Hospital have heard far too many similar stories to Hartman's, which is why they pushed for two amendments to the Behavioral Health Recovery Act. "In a package of 100 million dollars, at this point, absent of the inclusion of these amendments, only 12.5 million dollars are dedicated to children and youth. And that doesn't seem even close to sufficient to support what we're seeing right now in the state," said Baskfield, before the amendments were approved.
"A lot of this bill is really directed on the adult side of the equation. And, as is often the case, kids don't vote, they don't write campaign checks, and so their voices are often not taken into consideration."
One of the amendments increased the funding for crisis services from two million dollars to five million dollars. The money could fund expanding bed capacity and a pilot program for youth mobile crisis. It could also go toward community-based crisis services to help families manage crises in their homes.
The other amendment added five million dollars for "emergency short-term capacity-building for high-quality, specialized youth residential placements and therapeutic foster care."
Those with Children's Hospital say within the next six months, the funding can be used to open beds in residential treatment facilities, therapeutic foster care, and psychiatric residential treatment facilities.