Colorado Springs teen suicides highlight gap in mental health services
Colorado Springs is in the midst of a teen suicide cluster.
That should be more than enough to scare adults into action to improve adolescent mental health care in Colorado — and there is much room for improvement.
No one is certain what exactly drives rashes of suicides like this, but one thing is certain — data shows that children and adults are much less likely to attempt suicide if they have access to mental health care.
Let me pause here to say that if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there is help available and you’re not alone. Anyone can call 844-493-TALK (8255) or text “TALK” to 38255. These call lines are connected to the state’s 24/7 crisis walk-in centers and can dispatch mobile crisis services too. Teachers, parents and school counselors will drop everything to help you; just ask.
Suicide was the No. 1 killer of kids in Colorado between the ages of 10 and 17 from 2010 to 2014, according to the Child Fatality Prevention System. Suicide killed more kids than car accidents during those four years.
There are clear gaps in services in the state: not enough mental health providers in schools, a shortage of pediatric psychiatrists and psychologists, an inability to bill insurance for screening or preventative services, and a shortage of in-patient hospital beds.
Doyle Forrestal, CEO of the Colorado Behavioral Health Council, said she hears from school leaders that they need care providers in the building who can screen and treat mental illness.
Colorado Springs isn’t alone in its suffering. Mesa County is also afflicted with a teen suicide rate that is higher than the rest of the state and the country. The overall suicide rate in Mesa County is almost twice the national average. The Western Slope is in desperate need of resources to address adolescent mental health issues and deserves special attention.
Preventing suicide isn’t the only goal of improved mental health care. Early detection of mental health issues can go a long way to preventing children from one day being adults struggling with mental health.
Treatment can reduce substance abuse — Colorado ranked the worst in the nation for teen substance abuse according to a Mental Health America ranking of states that came out last week.
Andrew Romanoff, CEO of Mental Health Colorado, has spent the past six months traveling the state, holding community conversations about mental health.
His group still has meetings scheduled in Aurora and Brighton, but so far he is seeing a trend of barriers to access across the state in places like Pueblo, Greeley and Frisco.
Of 350 people who attended the meetings, not a scientifically representative sample, 70 percent indicated difficulty in getting symptoms identified for kids; 75 percent said parents didn’t know where to go; 58 percent said services weren’t available; and 53 percent said the cost was too high.
“Only a third of the kids in Colorado who experience mental health issues are getting the care they need, which means two-thirds are not,” Romanoff said. “You’re looking at a window where early intervention would be appropriate … but we’re not getting there.”
There’s some good news: Voters in this year’s election can direct money to youth mental health programs. Amendment 72, a significant increase in cigarette taxes, would pour an estimated $34 million into yet-to-be identified programs for adolescent mental health.
Given the level of need, the grant-givers need to be diligent in ensuring the money goes to fill the biggest needs in the state with proven programs that can operate effectively.
And let’s hope the state makes such programs a priority, regardless of the funding stream. Cigarette tax money won’t do it alone. Colorado needs to make mental health for kids a priority and find innovative ways to protect kids from an illness that can be deadly when undetected.