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A four-part look at why Colorado children are suffering from serious anxiety, depression and thoughts of self-harm and what communities are doing to help.

'There are kids that are thinking about dying': Colorado youth are in crisis

Leigh Paterson
Peer counselors, all students at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, gather in the counseling room during a passing period. Many schools lack the necessary resources to meet student's mental health needs.

The door of the peer counseling office at Rocky Mountain High School is lined with light blue LED lights. A bean bag sits in the corner and a small table holds plants and essential oils.

When a student wants to talk with a peer counselor about their troubles, they come here.

“I think it's a lot of anxiety, feeling really overwhelmed. There's a lot of depressive feelings,” said RMHS senior and peer counselor Lily Dubin, a peer counselor. “There's a lot of substance abuse happening. A lot of ‘It's hard to get through the day without having these feelings and needing that quick feel better.’”

Leigh Paterson
Lily Dubin, 17, stands in the peer counselor office at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins. She is one of 33 peer counselors at the school who students can come to with their troubles.

17-year-old Dubin is short with dark hair and a huge smile. She is on Rocky Mountain High School’s dance team and really loves academics. During the pandemic, her family provided a strong support system but being home all the time was still hard.

Leigh Paterson
Students at Rocky Mountain High School can write down what they are grateful for and hang it on a tree outside of the counseling office.

“I was still feeling really upset and sad and isolated and I had these feelings of, ‘My life is never going to get better than this and I'm stuck in this routine.’”

This is one of the reasons she became a peer counselor — to help the kids who had similar feelings but lacked the support. Now, once a week, Dubin sits in the peer office, meeting with students.

“A lot of people are feeling like they don't fit into this community and that creates this outsider feeling, which makes it really hard to go through school and sit in 90 minute classes and go to lunch and maybe not have people to sit with and look forward to just going home,” Dubin said.

These types of struggles are widespread. Persistent sadness and hopelessness among kids has been steadily increasing since the state began collecting this data a decade ago. Suicide has become a leading cause of death for young people.

Dubin says that a few times last year, students did come to her talking about self harm which she then had to report.

“It's pretty scary because you have to keep the line of professionalism of ‘I understand you’ and then the line of being scared and feeling really, really empathetic and upset for them,” Dubin said.

According to the Healthy Kids Colorado survey, in 2021, half of teens in Poudre School District said their stress felt unmanageable. Over 40% felt so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing some usual activities. One out of five high school students seriously considered suicide. These numbers are higher among girls and much higher among LGBTQ+ and non-binary kids.

‘The complexity of being human’

Younger children going to school one mile east, at Beattie Elementary, have been dealing with mental health challenges too. Stephanie Coleman, the school’s sole counselor, has a tent in the corner of her office.

“That's the cozy corner,” Coleman said. “Kids can come in and hang out if they need some quiet space.” 

Coleman remembers when her students first returned to the school for in-person classes.

“Honestly, I think the kids were so excited to be back in school on the days they were back in school,” Coleman said. “I didn't see as a counselor as many of the struggles then as I do now.”

Leigh Paterson
Stephanie Coleman, a school counselor, sits at her desk at Beattie Elementary School in Fort Collins. She has seen an increase in anxiety and dysregulation in kids since they returned from remote school.

She says she is seeing “hands down,” more
children with anxiety at younger ages. Students, Coleman says, seem to have a lower tolerance for frustration; they are more likely to yell or push after being cut in line, for example.

“What is making kindergarteners come in with this feeling of anxiety and dysregulation and not even comfortable in their own skin?” Coleman wonders. “We have one grade here who I would say probably 25 to 30 percent of them came to me individually describing symptoms of anxiety, stomachaches, headaches, not wanting to come to school.”

Some of these younger students are lacking some social skills: six-year-olds acting like a four year-old, for example, because they missed out on regular socialization for months or years. Learning loss — when a student falls behind academically — is another problem. Research is lacking on why exactly pandemic-era mental health impacts are lingering. But generally, prolonged stress in children can have lasting effects on childhood development.

“So it's really hard for us, I think, to just say, ‘Oh, we know if you're having a mental health concern or a social skills gap, well, we can just go in and we'll plug this in and then everything will be back to normal,’” Beattie Elementary Assistant Principal Cale Whicker said. “We're just really seeing that the complexity of being human in this time, that there is no easy fix.”

‘The need is so great’

Poudre School District is home to 29,000 students spread across 60 schools in Larimer County. Twenty-seven percent of students are on free or reduced lunch. The majority of students are white; 20% are Hispanic or Latino.

The district does have a variety of resources in place for students who are struggling: counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, a threat assessment team as well as staff supports around restorative justice, sexual assault and LBGTQIA+ needs. Many schools have wellness rooms, quiet spaces where kids can go to relax.

Still, the consensus is that staffing levels are not enough. Sometimes so many high school students are coming in for mental health support that students wanting to talk about college or careers just have to wait.

Leigh Paterson
Posters promoting Colorado’s free student therapy program hang on a door at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins. Many staff agree that schools need more resources to meet the mental health needs of students.

“The need is so great that we see that we can use more,” Beth Green, PSD’s counseling coordinator said.

Poudre School District did get some good news this month: a $1.5 million dollar grant from the federal government to put towards youth mental health. This district is also figuring out how to provide services to students outside of school – during spring and summer breaks.

In November, PSD Superintendent Brian Kingsley spoke passionately about youth mental health at a meeting with the Board of Education and state lawmakers.

“There are kids that are dying, thinking about dying, hurting themselves and feeling hopeless,” Kingsley said. “So I don't know what the tipping point is. I think we have to look in the mirror and ask that of ourselves as leaders.”

Kingsley declined to be interviewed for this story but during the November meeting, did outline four mental health priorities based on input from students including access to safe spaces outside of school, more school counselors and more awareness and education.

Kingsley said the school board has prioritized some money in its budget for these projects as has Larimer County. But much remains to be done and these efforts can be costly. Students, Kingsley says, are waiting for solutions.

“As we begin to normalize life post pandemic, this is a story we need to talk about more and be more courageous about,” Kingsley said.

‘You’re listened to and you’re seen’

Lily Dubin describes Rocky Mountain High School, as a place with a lot of trust and kindness. She says students don’t boo at basketball and football games. There is closeness between students and staff. Some of her teachers went to Rocky themselves. After the pandemic, rekindling that closeness has been a process.

“It took a little bit of time. We're still working on that,” Dubin said.

Dubin wants to become a therapist and is planning to study psychology when she goes off to college next year. As she winds down her time as a high school student, she’s helping interview next year’s peer counselor candidates and continuing to do the day-to-day work of a counselor.

“It really is just that acknowledgment of the validation that you matter and you’re present and you're heard and you're listened to and you're seen,” Dubin said. “It's so, so, so important. I think that's really the biggest thing that we can do during this hard time.”

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

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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