Colorado has a free therapy program for children. Here’s how it’s going, a year later.

Colorado’s free youth therapy program has served nearly 6,000 youth since it was created more than a year ago, but some mental health professionals say the program has limitations.

Last year, lawmakers decided to put nearly $500 million in COVID relief funds to rebuild the state’s behavioral health system. As part of this, the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration launched I Matter, a free therapy program for children. It was created through House Law 21-1258which passed during the 2021 legislative session and was aimed at increasing access to mental health and substance use services for Colorado youth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges for children in Colorado and across the country. According to the Colorado Institute of Health Colorado Health Access Surveythe percentage of Colorado teens reporting mental health issues has doubled between 2017 and 2021, from 9% to 19%.

“We have just seen unprecedented rates of mental health issues getting worse over these years after the pandemic began. And, yes, we continue to see astronomical rates of mental health issues throughout the Children’s Hospital, Colorado system and across the state and country.”

Dr. Jessica Hawkes, child and adolescent psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado

“We’ve just seen unprecedented rates of mental health issues getting worse over these years after the pandemic started,” says Dr. Jessica Hawkes, clinical director of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “And, yes, we continue to see astronomical rates of mental health issues throughout the Children’s Hospital, Colorado system and across the state and country.”

Between the first half of 2019 and the first half of 2022, Children’s Hospital Colorado reported an 88% increase in the number of patients seen in its emergency room due to mental health crises.

Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, who represents District 32 of Adams County, played an important role in the drafting of House Bill 21-1258 and was one of its major sponsors. She says witnessing young people’s experience with the pandemic, including that of her own children, has motivated her to tackle children’s mental health as a lawmaker.

“After spending a few years behind closed doors and behind masks and being told they could die if they hugged their friends, they weren’t ready to go back to school,” she says. “So I was trying to figure out how we could get therapy to any kid in Colorado who wanted it.”

youth can enroll in the program online, where they are asked to complete a survey about their mental health. Once the survey is completed, youth and parents are referred to therapists for six free sessions. After the six sessions are over, the program helps transfer children to other programs for additional therapy, if needed.

Young people can apply to the I Matter program online, where they are asked to complete a survey about their mental health.

Chris Weiss directs the Second Wind Fund, a non-profit suicide prevention organization that provides 12 sessions of therapy for youth in crisis and at risk of suicide. He supports the I Matter program’s goal of providing free therapy, but says he needs to collaborate more with established organizations like his that are already doing the work.

“There has been no real consultation with players who have been doing this for a long time. There isn’t a coalition of organizations that think like ours,” says Weiss. “And in recent years, several organizations have emerged that are doing work similar to ours and the I Matter program.”

He is also concerned that the program does not include specialist therapy for young people in crisis who are contemplating suicide, and what might happen to these children as they wait to see a therapist. But, according to Michaelson Jenet, the I Matter program is not intended to be a crisis service.

“If we could do it on their terms, when they could get therapy, when they wanted it, we could still get the same benefit of reducing some toxic stress, reducing some anxiety, reducing some depression,” she says. “We have a very serious problem. So I Matter is intended to reach all children who would like therapy and do not have access to therapy.”

A separate program through Colorado Crisis Services already exists for people going through a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts. In fact, Second Wind Fund is working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Colorado Crisis Services to become a provider through the hotline.

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Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, who represents Adams County District 32, played an important role in creating the I Matter program.

Michaelson Jenet also says the I Matter program is just part of the work that needs to be done to address Colorado’s child mental health crisis. For her, the next step is House Act 23-1003that was introduced in the legislature last week.

If passed, House Bill 23-1003 would expand access to therapy by creating a mental health assessment program in schools run by the Department of Public Health and Environment. Any public school could participate in the program and offer assessments for students in grades 6 through 12. Specific schools and parents could opt out of the program.

Mental health assessments would be used to refer students to therapy if needed. They would also fall under the student’s medical record, not the educational record, meaning the results would be confidential and protected by HIPAA.

Another bill, House Bill 23-1071, would allow some psychologists to prescribe psychotropic medications. Currently, psychologists have to refer patients to psychiatrists or doctors to obtain a prescription.

Reducing health care costs is a priority for both Governor Jared Polis and the Democratic majority in the legislature.

If you or someone you know is in a crisis, help is available. 988Colorado’s Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day.

Colorado has a free therapy program for children. Here’s how it’s going, a year later.

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