Proposed bill seeks annual mental health evaluation for Colorado students

DENVER – A proposed bill introduced in the 2023 Colorado legislative session seeks to add annual mental health assessments for students in high school from sixth grade to seniors.

House Bill 23-1003, otherwise known as the School Mental Health Assessment, would have voluntary mental health assessments administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Schools can decide whether to participate in the assessment or not.

“Just like you would have an eye exam or an ear exam, this would be a mental health screening,” said State Representative Daphna Michelson Gennett of D-District 32, one of the lead sponsors of the legislation.

In its current form, the bill would require any school that chooses to participate to provide written notice to parents within the first two weeks of the start of the school year. Parents can decide whether they want their child to receive an evaluation, but Colorado law gives children over the age of 12 the right to consent to an evaluation on their own.

Throughout her time in the Colorado legislature, Janet says she has focused on youth mental health because she has a personal connection to the subject.

“My son, who attempted suicide when he was nine years old in elementary school,” said Janet.

Her son is now 20 years old, happy and healthy.

“Maybe we can start to make a difference in changing this rate of depression in our youth. It’s important at this point in time,” Janet said.

Janet says the bill will build on the I Matter program, which was created in 2021.

“The I Matter program was born out of a desire to create safe classroom spaces upon returning from COVID,” he explained. “It’s been very successful, and we want to reach more kids and give more kids the opportunity for therapeutic participation.”

The I Matter program offers six free therapy sessions to students. It is funded and administered by the Office of Behavioral Health, and received $6 million through the American Rescue Plan Act following the passage of House Bill 22-1243. That funding allowed the program to continue serving any Colorado youth until at least June 30 this year.

“I Matter is a program that’s completely outside the school. It’s within the state of Colorado, and any school-aged child in Colorado has access to it,” Janet said.

Janet says HB23-1003 will add an element of in-person screening for students as opposed to online screening systems.

Janet explained, “We’re just adding another element to the program and creating an opportunity for a child to interact with a human person.” Some children may not be aware that Eye Matters, some children may not have access to a computer to be screened. It’s giving more access to schools that need it… imagine a school that has faced a number of suicides, they can use this program to evaluate all their kids for treatment , Because of the trauma the school has gone through. And we know unfortunately that there are many communities like this in Colorado.

Amber Wilson is a teacher in the Denver Public School System who also works with the Colorado Education Association. She says she noticed a profound emotional change in her students when they returned to the classroom after distance learning during the height of the pandemic.

Wilson said, “I definitely started to see him struggle with academics because he had a lot of personal things on his mind.” help.”

Wilson says the Eye Matter program is off to a good start with six free therapy sessions, but wonders what’s next.

“Six sessions is a start, and through this program, we will help connect them with other resources or insurance or other free programs for students who need more support,” said Janet about the only six free therapy sessions. Said in response to concern.

Still, Wilson is a little skeptical about the HB23-1003.

“What scares me about this piece of legislation that seems amazing is how are we going to actually make sure it does what needs to be done for the kids?” Wilson asked.

Children’s Hospital Colorado supports HB23-1003 for a myriad of reasons, particularly following the hospital system’s experience during the pandemic.

“Since March of 2020, there was an increase in the amount of behavioral health children seeking care in our emergency department,” said Zach Zaslow, interim vice president of community health and advocacy for Children’s Hospital Colorado. “We weren’t sure what else to do. We needed to shine a light on the problem, really sound the alarm for the kids.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency in May 2021 due to an increase in the number of children seeking emergency care.

“We’re all very busy when it comes to mental health,” Zaslow said.

Data from Children’s Hospital Colorado shows a 74% increase in patients visiting one of their emergency department locations for behavioral health concerns between January and September 2022 compared to the first three quarters of 2019 .

“We want to see those volumes return to normal. We want children to have the services they need in their homes, at their schools, with their primary care providers, and not have to travel to an acute care hospital like Children’s Hospital Colorado to get the help they need.” Zaslow said. explained. “There are a lot of mental health challenges that kids are really struggling with, especially during the pandemic.”

Zaslow said Children’s Hospital Colorado supports HB23-1003 because they want children to have access to mental health care when they need it.

“This program is really designed to meet kids where they are, find problems early, and then refer them to services so they can get help as quickly as possible,” Zaslow said. Could.” eliminating the more expensive or more serious problems with the system and their mental health and front line.

Mental Health Colorado would like to see the bill amended to ensure that evaluations are reviewed in a timely manner if a student expresses thoughts of suicide or homicide. The group would also like to see private schools included in the bill.

Christian Home Educators of Colorado (CHEC) opposes the bill, but was not available for an interview Tuesday. However, CHEC sent the following statement:

Families are the cornerstone of our society and the role of parents in the lives of children needs to be protected. HB23-1003 contains several troubling aspects that would interfere with the child/parent relationship.

Carolyn Martin, Director of Government Relations, CHEC

Janet said the primary form of pushback on the bill has been that children at age 12 can consent to a mental health evaluation, even if their parents do not.

“This has been the law in Colorado for many years,” she said. “We don’t want to separate parents from their children. We want to bring parents and their children back together.

The proposed bill is scheduled as a hearing item on February 7 in the Committee on Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services.

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