Middle and high school students in Colorado can begin receiving annual mental health screenings

The Colorado legislature aims to make it easier for young people across the state to get free treatment by creating a program where children in grades 6 through 12 can get an in-school mental health evaluation.

If approved by state legislators, House bill 1003 Public schools will be allowed to participate in the program, which will be administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Parents can choose not to have their children participate in the assessment, although children 12 and older will be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to participate.

“We have to continue to destigmatize therapy,” said Rep. Dafna Michelson-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, and that’s similar to an eye exam, an ear exam, or a scoliosis exam.”

The idea will be an extension of Program I am importantFounded in 2021 and offering up to six free therapy sessions to young people in Colorado. The program has so far served nearly 6,000 students. Michaelson-Gennett said House Bill 1003 aims to connect more children with these free therapy services.

If during the evaluation a student is found to be in need of therapy, their parents will be notified and given information about I Matter resources.

Michaelson-Gennett said the assessment program is intended as a way to help children who are in a difficult place of mental health before they reach a crisis point. She sees the initiative as a way to enhance school safety.

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

“It starts with having an environment where kids who need treatment get that treatment,” she said.

Lorelei Jackson, student services coordinator for Denver Public Schools, said that in some schools it’s teachers who end up responding to students’ mental health needs.

“It’s really hard for a teacher to support maths and literacy as well as 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 teachers with policymakers, said she supports the bill because kids need to have their mental health needs met before they can learn.

She said, “If you’re dealing with trauma, if you’re very absorbent about what’s going on and people are depressed, you can’t focus on the math.”

Nicole Pacias, a Year 6 teacher in school district 27J in Brighton, said her students all seemed to be facing mental health challenges, as the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated some mental health needs.

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

Under the bill, participating schools would send a letter notifying parents of assessments and allowing them to opt out of their children if desired. Students 12 and older can still choose to take the assessment even if their parents have opted out.

These children will have to agree to notify the parents after the evaluation if treatment is necessary. If a student does not agree to inform their parents, they will be referred directly to I Matter resources.

If an assessment shows a student is in crisis or is in danger of harming themselves or others, the school will be notified immediately.

While the cost of House Bill 1003 is not specified, Michaelson Jenet hopes it will be covered by federal funding and Medicare.

said Sen. Lisa Cutter, de Morrison, who is another lead sponsor of the bill.

The program will be administered by CDPHE but evaluations will be conducted by a private contractor. CDPHE has several requirements that must be followed when selecting a provider, including that they must have experience running a similar program at the state level, according to the bill.

Schools interested in taking the program will need to notify the department before May 1 of the year they wish to begin.

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

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