By: Faith Miller

October 24, 2019

Partners for Children’s Mental Health, a program out of Children’s Hospital Colorado, will get a $2.8 million grant from the state attorney general’s office to launch an initiative improving kids’ access to care.

Plans include assessing the state’s pediatric mental health needs, improving care for kids in rural areas, training pediatric physicians on mental health and implementing a School Mental Health Toolkit across Colorado school districts.

The toolkit, developed by nonprofit Mental Health Colorado, is a free online resource that outlines steps schools can take — such as screenings, suicide prevention and wellness plans — to combat mental illness and keep their students safe.

El Paso County saw a frightening spike in youth suicides in 2015 and 2016, but the trend seems to be slowing. The average number of youth suicides over the past three years is 14. This year, there have been five suicides in the 10-24 age group so far, says Dr. Leon Kelly, the deputy chief medical examiner. But three of those deaths occurred just in October — reminding the county why improving care remains critical.

“Teen suicides happen almost entirely during the school years,” Kelly says. In 2015 and 2016, he adds, the county saw an increase in suicides in the early part of the spring semester and closer to the end of the fall semester. This year, though, there were just two suicides in the spring semester, while the other three have occurred in a cluster this fall.

“That’s discouraging,” Kelly says of this season’s toll, “but we’ll see.” He points out that last year, the county had one youth suicide in October but finished the semester without any more.

Mental Health Colorado will receive $800,000 of the grant money to implement its toolkit in schools, says CEO Andrew Romanoff. The nonprofit plans to work with districts individually to identify their needs and figure out ways to better support their students.

Even with the grant money, that’s no easy task in a state with 178 districts and more than 1,800 schools, Romanoff says. It’ll require a close look at different sources of funding for mental health, whether that’s from voter-approved tax levies or other resources.

And the challenges of providing mental health care for kids don’t stop there.

“We think based on the national research we’ve done that Colorado schools require about twice as many school nurses, counselors and psychologists and nine times as many school social workers as they have right now just to meet national recommended ratios,” Romanoff says. “The trouble is, even if you have the money in the school budget to hire those folks or to contract with them, you don’t have the workforce trained. There’s a shortage of pediatric mental health specialists.”

That’s where Partners for Children’s Mental Health (PCHMH), which will receive the other $2 million in funding, can support Mental Health Colorado’s efforts. One of PCMH’s planned initiatives, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office, is to create a “Zero Suicide” pediatric care pathway for primary care physicians, and to hold training academies for “130 Colorado pediatric practices representing 700 pediatric physicians.”

PCMH also plans to develop training modules for trauma-informed care, and begin delivering the modules across the state.

“[The toolkit] will be more effective since we have a partner like Children’s Hospital who can help with some of the workforce training,” Romanoff says.

Rolling out the toolkit in every school will also require identifying a “champion” in each district — a teacher, school leader, parent, counselor or anyone passionate about mental health — to help work with districts to implement strategies.

And what works in a metro district may not necessarily be as effective in rural areas.

“We want to make sure that both the toolkit itself and the training are customized to meet the needs of different school districts,” Romanoff says. “In some cases that might mean, for example, helping districts figure out how to better use telehealth technology so that they can beam in therapists in places where one might not be physically available. In other places it might mean looking at workforce incentives, financial incentives, loan forgiveness programs so we can help address the underserved parts of the state…We need to recognize that one size doesn’t fit all.”

The toolkit is available for free online at

Originally appeared in Colorado Springs Independent.