DENVER — The past few years have been particularly difficult for Colorado students. Between the social pressures of growing up and the stresses of the pandemic, many students have been struggling.
A Healthy Kids Colorado survey found that in 2021, 40% of respondents reported that they stopped doing normal activities because they were feeling helpless or sad for at least two weeks.
Over the past couple of legislative sessions, lawmakers have passed legislation to offer more funding and resources to students. This year, they hope to expand on that work.
Student mental health assessment
House Bill 23-1003, otherwise known as the School Mental Health Assessment, would have voluntary mental health evaluations administered yearly by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Schools could decide whether or not to participate in the assessments.
“It shows up where they are students are in school. We would be bringing in the screeners to their school, just like you would get an eye exam or an ear exam at school. But this time, it's a mental health assessment,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City.
In its current form, the bill would require any school that chooses to participate to provide 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.
“Sometimes they need to speak to somebody else that isn't their parent. And they deserve confidentiality, just like we deserve confidentiality,” Michaelson Jenet said. “Our kids were saying, ‘Why should I talk to this therapist? Because they're just going to call my mom after and say everything that I said.’ And so they won't talk to the therapist, they'll set their mouth shut, or they’ll lie. So, we had to create a way for them to have an authentic access to therapy.”
The bill will face its first committee hearing on Feb. 7.
Student substance abuse help
Another bill aims to address substance use and abuse issues among high school students. House Bill 23-1009 would establish a 12-person committee to connect students with resources to help.
The committee would be tasked with developing practices to identify students in schools who might need substance use treatment or an intervention.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Mandy Lindsay, D-Aurora, says there are already prevention programs in schools to dissuade students from using drugs and alcohol to begin with, as well as programs focused on crisis intervention. This bill would help fill in the gaps.
“Prevention is great. And then, obviously, treatment for kids that are really in crisis is super important. This is kind of for that everywhere in between. A lot of kids are casual users of things, first time users of things. And so, this gives them an opportunity to even talk about things like vaping and alcohol,” Lindsay said.
Lindsay is a mother of four and says she knows the pressures students are facing with school, social groups, the pandemic and more. There are also more enticing options for teens these days like vape pens.
She hopes this bill will offer the state the direction it needs to curb student drug and alcohol use and help the students before things get to a crisis level.
“This behavioral health struggle right now for young people is massive, and they are clamoring to us telling us what their problems are, what they need. And so to me, as a mom, as a legislator, I'm like, 'OK, I hear you. What can we do?' And let's get to it,” Lindsay said.
CPR training in schools
One bill that addresses physical health this session is Senate Bill 23-023. It would require the Colorado Department of Education to adopt a curriculum for instruction on CPR and the use of Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs).
It also encourages all schools to adopt a CPR and AED curriculum in schools.
“We're not mandating this, but we're just trying to shine a light,” said Sen. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction.
Rich says this is already a standard for CDE, but the bill will shine a light on the need for more training and could encourage more students to think about going into the medical field.
“No matter where you are, if there's some sort of an incident that occurs, do you really want to just stand there and watch them pass away? Or you might be able to do something based on this,” Rich said.
She recognizes that not all schools are going to have the funding for these programs, but says there are grants to help and that this education can play a critical role in saving a life.
The bill passed its first committee test Wednesday and moves on in the legislative process.
Along with mental health assessments, lawmakers have also introduced bills to offer more information for students, along with employing additional mental health professionals in schools.
House Bill 23-1007 requires postsecondary school ID cards that are issued next school year to have crisis and suicide prevention contact information on it. If student IDs are not used, institutions would have to distribute information about Colorado Crisis Services and 988 at the beginning of each semester.
That bill passed its first committee test Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 23-004 would allow school districts to employ licensed mental health professionals who are not licensed by the Department of Education. Those professionals may be supervised by a mentor or school district administrator. The goal is to bring in more resources to schools for student mental health.
The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
Lawmakers say even with all of these bills, there is still a lot of work to be done to help students, but they are committed to finding ways to help.
“Every legislative session, we chip away and we chip away and we chip away. Until we start seeing the suicide rate go down, until we start having responses to the Healthy Kids survey that the kids are doing great, until the kids start telling us that they're fine, until the emergency room departments stop being filled, we have more work to do,” said Michaelson Jenet.