Colorado has a free therapy program for kids. Here’s how it's going, one year in.
Colorado’s free youth therapy program has served almost 6,000 young people since it was created over a year ago, but some mental healthcare providers say the program has limitations.
Last year, lawmakers decided to put nearly $500 million of COVID relief funding into remaking the state’s behavioral healthcare system. As part of that, Colorado’s Behavioral Health Administration launched I Matter, a free therapy program for kids. It was created through House Bill 21-1258, which was passed during the 2021 legislative session, and aimed to increase access to mental health and substance use services for Colorado’s youth.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges for kids in Colorado and across the country. According to the Colorado Health Institute’s Colorado Health Access Survey, the percent of Colorado adolescents reporting poor mental health doubled between 2017 and 2021, from 9% to 19%.
“We just saw unprecedented rates of mental health concerns worsening over those years after the onset of the pandemic. And, yes, we continue to see astronomical rates of mental health concerns across the entire Children's Hospital, Colorado system and across the state and the country.”Dr. Jessica Hawks, a child and adolescent psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado
“We just saw unprecedented rates of mental health concerns worsening over those years after the onset of the pandemic,” says Dr. Jessica Hawks, the clinical director of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children's Hospital Colorado. “And, yes, we continue to see astronomical rates of mental health concerns across the entire Children's Hospital, Colorado system and across the state and the country.”
Between the first half of 2019 and the first half of 2022, Children’s Hospital Colorado reported an 88% increase in patients coming to its emergency department due to mental health crises.
Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, who represents Adams County-based District 32, played a large part in crafting House Bill 21-1258 and was one of its main sponsors. She says witnessing young peoples’ experience of the pandemic, including that of her own kids, motivated her to tackle childhood mental health as a lawmaker.
“After having spent a couple of years behind closed doors and behind masks and being told they could die if they hug their friends, they were not ready to go back to school,” she says. “So I was trying to figure out how could we get therapy for any kid in Colorado who wanted it.”
Youth can enroll in the program online, where they are prompted to fill out a survey about their mental health. Once the survey is completed, youth and parents are referred to therapists for six free sessions. Once the six sessions are over, the program helps hand-off kids to other programs for additional therapy, if needed.
Chris Weiss heads the Second Wind Fund, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization that provides 12 therapy sessions to youth who are in crisis and at risk of suicide. He supports the I Matter program’s goal of providing free therapy, but he says it needs to collaborate more with established organizations like his that are already doing the work.
“There wasn't any real consultation with the players who've been doing this for a long time. There isn't a coalition of like minded organizations like ours,” says Weiss. “And in recent years, there have been a number of organizations popping up who are doing similar work to us, and similar work to the I Matter program.”
He is also concerned that the program does not include specialized therapy for youth in crisis who are considering suicide, and about what could happen to those kids while they wait to see a therapist. But according to Michaelson Jenet, the I Matter program is not meant to be a crisis service.
“If we could do it on their terms, when they could have therapy, when they wanted, we can still do the same benefit of reducing some toxic stress, reducing some anxiety, reducing some depression,” she says. “We have a real serious problem. So I Matter is intended to reach all of those kids who would like to have therapy who don't have access to therapy.”
A separate program through Colorado Crisis Services already exists for people experiencing 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.
Michaelson Jenet also says the I Matter program is just part of the work that needs to be done to address Colorado’s childhood mental health crisis. For her, the next step is House Bill 23-1003, which 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 managed by the Department of Public Health and Environment. Any public school would be able to participate in the program and offer assessments to 6th through 12th grade students. Specific schools, and parents, would be able to opt out of the program.
The mental health assessments would be used to refer students to therapy if they need it. They would also fall under a student’s medical record, not their education record, which means the results would be confidential and protected by HIPAA.
Another bill, House Bill 23-1071, would make it possible for some psychologists to prescribe psychotropic medications. Currently, psychologists have to refer patients to psychiatrists or medical doctors to get a prescription.
Lowering healthcare costs are a priority for both Gov. Jared Polis and the legislature’s Democratic majority.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. 988, Colorado's Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, is available 24 hours a day.