‘Kids are in crisis here in Colorado’: Proposed legislation could offer annual mental health assessments for public schools statewide

State lawmakers are hoping to tackle Colorado’s youth mental health crisis via an annual mental check up for students.
State lawmakers are proposing a bill that would offer annual mental health check-ups at public schools for grades six through 12.
Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 8:30 AM MST|Updated: Feb. 23, 2023 at 9:25 AM MST
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Colorado is one of the worst states for mental health, especially in youth, according to reports.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a youth mental health state of emergency in 2021, and numbers have only increased since the pandemic. According to the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, nearly 40% of high school students said they experienced symptoms of depression last year. A little over 17% said they’d seriously considered suicide in the past year.

In response to the state’s youth mental health crisis, state lawmakers are proposing a bill that would offer annual mental health check-ups at public schools for grades six through 12.

They tell 11 News they’re focusing on that population since the bulk of mental health challenges happens in middle and high school.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) will oversee the program, as well as select a qualified provider. Only this provider can conduct assessments for students.

Schools can choose whether or not to participate in the annual assessment, which would be similar to a questionnaire. And lawmakers say the process would look a little like picture day. Students will meet with the health care provider for a one-on-one meeting, then the next student will hop in and do the same.

After the screening, some students may be referred to additional resources, such as the state’s I Matter program. This program provides free therapy and counseling services for those 18 or younger, or 21 or younger if needing special education services.

“I hope we’ll walk away with the normalization of therapy, that kids will really understand here is something to support me,” Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet (D-Colo.) told 11 News. “Here is a program that supports me, and that my school cares about and believes in me, and that my parents care about and believe in me.”

Lawmakers are estimating around 24% of public schools -- which equates to more than 90,000 students -- will participate.

One of the bigger issues for this bill, however, is parental choice.

At participating schools, parents can choose if their children will participate. But students 12 or older can give their own consent, even if the parents opt out. Even when a student is suggested additional resources, those 12 or older can choose not to notify their legal guardians.

11 News spoke with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“I’m not against mental health screening,” said Rep. Mary Bradfield (R-Colo.). “I think, though, that mom and dad need to know about it.”

The representative says she hasn’t received any communication from her constituents supporting the bill as is, due to its implications on parental consent.

However, Democratic lawmakers Rep. Michaelson Jenet and Sen. Lisa Cutter, the bill’s co-sponsor, say it’s important for youth to have trusted adults, other than their parents or legal guardians, to confide in.

Another big conversation here is state expenses.

If enacted, the program could cost over half a million dollars this year, and a little over $17 million from fiscal year 2024-2025.

“There’s no dollar figure that’s too high when we’re supporting and investing in our youth,” explained Cutter (D-Colo.).

The three lawmakers 11 News spoke with agreed that while Colorado houses numerous mental health programs, the state struggles to successfully deliver those services. Thus, they’d like to see this bill achieve its intended statewide impacts.

“It’s not that we don’t have the no knowledge, but we don’t have the people to to provide the services,” Bradfield added.

Yet, some people are questioning why such a mental health screening is organized at the state level, rather than county or individual school districts.

“This bill is written exactly for control on the local level,” Michaelson Jenet explained. “There is no mandate on this, it comes with funding, and it comes with people. So we’re not asking to use the school resources. So we think that this absolutely is designed for local control, which Colorado loves.”

The bill was introduced last month in the state House and is up for further debate in the Committee on Appropriations.

11 News will continue to track the bill for you.