Colorado middle and high schoolers could begin receiving annual mental health checks

The Colorado legislature is aiming to make it easier for youth across the state to…

Colorado middle and high schoolers could begin receiving annual mental health checks

The Colorado legislature is aiming to make it easier for youth across the state to access free therapy by creating a program in which kids sixth through 12th grade can get an in-school mental health assessment.

If approved by state lawmakers, House Bill 1003 would allow public schools to opt into the program, which would be run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Parents could opt their child out of the assessment, though children 12 or older would also be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to participate.

“We have to continue to destigmatize therapy,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, one of the lead sponsors of the bill. “This is one way to do that. The brain is part of your body, this is similar to having an eye exam, ear exam or scoliosis exam.” 

The idea would be an extension of the I Matter program, which was formed in 2021 and provides up to six free therapy sessions for youth in Colorado. The program has so far served nearly 6,000 students. House Bill 1003 aims to connect more kids to those free therapy services, Michaelson Jenet said.

If a student is found during an assessment to need treatment, their parents would be notified and given information about the I Matter resources. 

The assessment program is intended as a way to help kids who are in a difficult mental health place before they get to a crisis point, Michaelson Jenet said. She sees the initiative as a way to bolster school safety. 

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

“It starts with having an environment where kids who need therapy are actually getting that therapy,” she said.

In some schools, teachers are the ones who end up responding to mental health needs of students, said Lorelei Jackson, a student services coordinator in Denver Public Schools. 

“It’s really hard for a teacher to support in math and literacy and also 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.

“If you are dealing with trauma, if you are strongly internalizing what’s going on and people are depressed, you’re unable to focus on math,” she said. 

Nicole Pasillas, a sixth grade teacher in the 27J Schools district in Brighton, said her students all seem to be experiencing mental health challenges, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating some mental health needs.

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

Under the bill, participating schools would send out a letter notifying parents of the assessments and allow them to opt their child out if desired. Students 12 and older could still choose to get the assessment even if their parents opt them out. 

Those children would have to consent to parent notification following an assessment if treatment is necessary. If the student doesn’t consent to their parents being informed, they will be directly referred to I Matter resources.

If an assessment reveals a student is in crisis or in danger of hurting themselves or others, the school would be immediately notified. 

While the cost of House Bill 1003 hasn’t been determined, Michaelson Jenet hopes that it will be covered by federal funding and Medicaid.

“To the degree that we can invest in the front end and take care of problems before they become worse, then I would say that’s an investment worth making and especially if it’s a human,” said Sen. Lisa Cutter, D-Morrison, another lead sponsor of the bill. 

The program would be administered by CDPHE but the assessments would be done by a private contractor. CDPHE has several requirements it must follow when selecting a provider, including that they must have experience managing a similar statewide program, according to the bill.

Schools interested in having the program would need to notify the department before May 1 of the year in which they wish to begin.

The bill is scheduled to be heard by the Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services committee Jan. 25.