Solutions to our youth mental health crisis within reach this year

By: Jena Hausmann

April 8, 2019

Colorado is first in the nation on many fronts, most of which we are rightly proud of. But Colorado also has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the nation. Pueblo County, along with El Paso, La Plata, and Mesa counties, have the highest rates of youth suicide in the state, according to a report released by the attorney general last year. Fortunately, we also have a chance this year to make our beautiful state a leader when it comes to youth mental health.

Since 2015, suicide has taken the lives of more than 24 young people in Pueblo County. And theHealthy Kids Colorado 2017 survey shows 20.7 percent of El Paso County teens seriously considered suicide, which is roughly 3 percent higher than the statewide average. At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we have seen the rate of attempted suicide increase 600 percent since 2009.

Mental health is treatable and suicide is preventable. But this crisis — in our community and in our state — requires the immediate attention of our state leaders and lawmakers. That’s why we’re grateful that Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields and Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp have teamed up with Republicans Sen. Bob Gardner and Rep. Lois Landgraf to introduce Senate Bill 195, legislation that would move forward a set of evidence-based mental health programs to improve access and treatment for children and youth.

First, SB-195 would standardize the screenings and assessments that health care providers use to identify potential mental health concerns. It will always be up to families whether to follow up for additional care, but better tools can mean earlier identification of needs and faster referral for services.

Second, the legislation would ensure that eligible Colorado children with significant mental health challenges have access to cost-effective “wraparound” services. Wraparound services are high-quality, intensive care coordination services for children and families with complex needs who often struggle to access care when involved in multiple systems. This approach can empower families and allow children to get the right mental health service at the right time.

Demonstration projects in Colorado and proven examples from other states have driven substantial improvements in child mental health and well-being — and saved millions of dollars.

We believe Colorado could save $25 million to $35 million in taxpayer funds each year if kids can get the treatment they need, rather than going un-diagnosed or “failing up” to higher and higher levels of care in the system.

Third, the bill would direct the design of an integrated funding pilot project to improve access to services and resolve the challenges of a fragmented mental health system.

Unfortunately, mental health issues affect those of all ages. So why does SB-195 focus on youth? Because kids have unique needs and because mental health problems later in life nearly all can be traced to childhood and young adulthood. In fact, 50 percent of mental health conditions emerge before age 14, and 75 percent by age 24, but far fewer are accurately diagnosed and treated. Preventing problems before they start, or catching them early, is the most effective approach.

To understand the urgent need for the screening and wraparound services as outlined in SB-195, look no further than the Colorado families who testified in support of the bill at the State Capitol March 21. These families have experienced suicide attempts or the loss of children to suicide. They have gotten the “troublemaker” label and lost years of effective schooling due to missed early identification and referral services. They have been overwhelmed when their young children were paralyzed by anxiety or depression. Their experiences are no longer unusual for Colorado families. But solutions are on the horizon.

SB-195 passed its first committee hearing on a unanimous 5-0 vote and is now continuing to move through the legislative process. It certainly won’t solve every mental health challenge in our community. But getting this bill signed into law this year can set Colorado on a path to dramatically improve mental health services for children and youth in our state.

We thank the sponsors of SB-195 for leading this important charge, as well as key partners like Mental Health Colorado, The Kempe Center, Partners for Children’s Mental Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics and many more for their support of the bill.

Colorado’s kids can’t wait. We need lawmakers to make mental health a top priority this year. To learn more and share a message with your local elected officials about the importance of youth mental health, visit

Originally appeared on The Pueblo Chieftain.