DENVER — A proposed bill introduced in the 2023 Colorado legislative session seeks to add yearly mental health assessments for students ranging from sixth grade to seniors in high school.
House Bill 23-1003, otherwise known as the School Mental Health Assessment, would have voluntary mental health evaluations administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Schools could decide whether or not to participate in the assessments.
“Like you would have an eye exam or an ear exam, this would be a mental health examination," said State Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D - District 32, one of the prime sponsors of the legislation.
In its current form, the bill would require any school that chooses to participate to give parents written notice within the first two weeks of the start of the school year. Parents could decide if they would like their child to receive the evaluations, but Colorado law does give children above the age of 12 the right to consent to the assessments on their own.
Throughout her time in the Colorado legislature, Jenet says she's 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 Jenet. "He was just so distraught and at the end of his rope that he thought it would be better if he was dead.”
Her son is now 20 years old, happy and healthy.
“Perhaps we can start making a difference in turning around this rate of depression in our youth. That's critical at this moment," Jenet said.
Jenet says the bill would build upon the I Matter program, which was created in 2021.
“The I Matter program was born out of that desire to create safe classroom spaces upon the return from COVID," she explained. “It's been very successful, and we want to reach more kids and give more kids the opportunity to have a therapeutic involvement.”
The I Matter program provides students with six free therapy sessions. 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 through at least June 30 of this year.
“I Matter is a program that's completely outside of school. It's within the state of Colorado, and any school-aged kid in Colorado has access to it," said Jenet.
Jenet says HB23-1003 would add the element of an in-person screening for students, as opposed to the online screening system.
“We're just adding one more element to the program and creating that opportunity for a kid to interact with a human individual," explained Jenet. "For some kids, taking a screener online may not be the appropriate tool. Some kids may not know about I Matter, some kids may not have access to a computer to do the screening. This is giving more access to schools who need it... Imagine a school that has dealt with a number of suicides, they might choose to use this program to evaluate all of their kids for therapy because of the trauma that school has been through. And we unfortunately know that there are many communities like that in Colorado.”
Amber Wilson is a teacher in the Denver Public Schools system who also works with the Colorado Education Association. She says she noticed a stark emotional change in her students when they returned to the classroom after remote learning during the height of the pandemic.
“I would start seeing them definitely struggle with keeping up with academics because they had so many personal things on their mind," Wilson said. “There's still a lot of struggle going on with them... They're crying out right now for help.”
Wilson says the I Matter program is a good start with six free therapy sessions, but wonders what's next.
“Six sessions is a beginning, and through this program, we’ll help connect with other resources or insurance or other free programs as necessary, as the students need more support," Jenet said in response to the concern about only six free therapy sessions.
Still, Wilson is a bit skeptical about HB23-1003.
“What scares me about this piece of legislation that sounds wonderful is how are we going to actually make sure that it does what it needs to do for kids?" Wilson asked.
Children's Hospital Colorado supports HB23-1003 for a myriad of reasons, especially after what the hospital system experienced during the pandemic.
“Since March of 2020, we had had just an increase in our behavioral health volumes, kids seeking care in our emergency department," said Interim Vice President of Community Health and Advocacy for Children's Hospital Colorado, Zach Zaslow. "We weren't sure what else to do. We needed to shine a light on the problem, really sound the alarm for kids.”
Children's Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency in May of 2021 due to the rise in children seeking emergency care.
“We continue to be very, very busy when it comes to mental health volumes," said Zaslow. "We served just as many kids in 2022 as we did in 2021.”
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 when compared to the first three quarters of 2019.
“We'd like to see those volumes returning back to normal. We want to see kids getting the services that they need in their homes, in their schools, with their primary care providers, and not having to come to an acute care hospital, like Children's Hospital Colorado, to get the help that they need," Zaslow explained. “There's a lot of undiagnosed 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 to see children get the mental health care they need when they need it.
“This program is really designed to meet kids where they are, detect those problems early, and then refer them to services to hopefully get the support that they need sooner," said Zaslow. "So that they're not sort of moving up in the system and ending up with more expensive or more acute problems with their mental health further down the line.”
Mental Health Colorado would like to see the bill amended to ensure the assessments are reviewed in a timely manner, in case a student expresses suicidal or homicidal ideations. The group would also like to see private schools included in the bill.
The Christian Home Educators of Colorado (CHEC) opposes this bill, but did not have time for an interview Tuesday. However, CHEC sent the following statement:
Families are the cornerstone of our society and the role of parents in children's lives needs to be protected. HB23-1003 includes several troubling aspects that will interfere with the child/parent relationship.
Jenet said the primary form of pushback on the bill has been that children at age 12 can consent to the mental health assessment even if their parent does not.
"That's been the law in Colorado for a number of years," she said. “We don't want to separate parents from their children. We want to bring parents and their children back closer together.”
The proposed bill is set as a hearing item on Feb. 7 in the Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee.