Colorado middle and high school students can start getting annual mental health screenings

The Colorado legislature aims to make it easier for youth across the state to access free therapy by creating a program in which children in sixth through 12th grade can receive an in-school mental health evaluation.

If approved by state lawmakers, House Bill 1003 would allow public schools to join the program, which would be run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Parents can opt their child out of the evaluation, although children 12 and older will also be allowed to decide whether they want to participate.

“We have to continue to demystify Medicare,” said Rep. Daphna Michaelson Gennett, D-Commerce City, one of the bill’s lead sponsors. “That’s one way to do it. The brain is part of your body, it’s the same as an eye exam, an ear exam, or a scoliosis exam.

The idea would be an expansion of the I Matter program, which was created in 2021 and provides six free therapy sessions for youth in Colorado. The program has served approximately 6,000 students so far. Michelson Gennett said the purpose of House Bill 1003 is to connect more children to those free medical services.

If a student requires remediation during an assessment, their parents will be notified and will be given access to I Matter resources.

Michaelson Gennett said the purpose of the assessment program is to help children who are in a difficult mental health spot before they become in crisis. She sees the initiative as a way to strengthen school security.

Rep. Daphna Michaelson Janet, D-Commerce City, speaks about mental health equality to the audience at The Colorado Sun’s Big Ideas 2020 Forum at the Cable Center on the University of Denver campus January 14, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“It starts with having an environment where kids who need therapy are actually receiving therapy,” she said.

In some schools, teachers are the only ones who respond to students’ mental health needs, said Lorelei Jackson, a student services coordinator in Denver Public Schools.

“It’s really hard for a teacher to support math and literacy and mental health when that’s not really what they’re trained for,” she said.

Jackson, who also volunteers with Teach Plus Colorado, an organization that connects educators with policy makers, said she supports the bill because it requires children to have their mental health needs met before they can learn.

“If you’re dealing with trauma, if you’re acutely aware of what’s happening and people are depressed, you’re unable to focus on math,” she said.

Nicole Pasillas, a sixth-grade teacher at 27J School District in Brighton, said all of her students are facing mental health challenges, as the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating some mental health needs.

“I think there were always problems but the COVID situation made it worse for some children in some areas,” she said. “I can only help them so much, because legally I’m not a counselor or a therapist.”

Under the bill, participating schools would send parents a letter notifying them of the evaluation and allowing them to opt out of their child if desired. Students age 12 and older can still choose to receive an assessment even if their parents have dropped them out.

Those children must consent to parental notification after evaluation if treatment is necessary. If the student does not consent to their parents being notified, they will be referred directly to I Matter resources.

If an assessment reveals that a student is in distress or at risk of harm to themselves or others, the school will be notified immediately.

While the cost of House Bill 1003 has not been determined, Michelson Gennett expects it to be covered by federal funding and Medicaid.

“To the extent that we can invest in the front end and take care of problems before they get worse, then I would say it’s worth investing in, and especially if it’s a human,” Sen. Lisa Cutter, Said D-Morrison, another major sponsor of the bill.

The program will be administered by CDPHE but evaluation will be done by a private contractor. CDPHE has several requirements it must meet when selecting a provider, including that they must have experience administering a uniform statewide program, according to the bill.

Schools interested in the program must notify the department before May 1 of the year in which they wish to start.

The bill is scheduled to be heard on January 25 by the Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee.

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