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Student mental health top of mind at the Capitol one year after Colorado behavioral health revamp

The Colorado State Capitol on February 6, 2023.
Lucas Brady Woods
The Colorado State Capitol on Feb. 6, 2023.

Mental health continues to be a focus for Colorado lawmakers a year after they made historic investments in Colorado’s mental health care system. Several new bills dealing with student mental health are making their way through the legislature.

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet is one of the bill’s sponsors.

“In my time in the legislature, I have spent many a day working on trying to figure out how to get in front of the mental health crisis that we are in for our youth,” Michaelson Jenet said. “We have children who are stacked up in emergency departments waiting for care. We need to get ahead of this.”

One bill, House Bill 1007, would require Colorado’s suicide crisis hotline and the national suicide hotline to be printed on all student IDs. It follows a bill passed last year that required the Colorado hotline be printed on public high school IDs. If passed, the new bill would add the number to college student IDs too, and include the national hotline. It passed a final vote in the House this week and now moves to the Senate.

Another bill, House Bill 1003, would create a mental health assessment program for Colorado schools. The bill would develop a program through the Department of Public Health and Environment that public schools could opt into. The program would include a standardized mental health assessment system that could be used for 6th through 12th grade students. It would be used to identify students struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

A third bill, House Bill 1009, would help schools identify kids with substance use issues and offer treatment resources. Under the bill, a new committee in the Department of Education would be tasked with developing a system to be used by high schools across the state. The goal would be to identify students who need substance use treatment, offer a brief intervention, and refer the students to substance use treatment services.

These bills come a year after lawmakers essentially remade Colorado’s behavioral health system and invested nearly $500 million of COVID relief funding into mental health care. House Speaker Julie McCluskie says the funding is still being distributed and is just starting to have an impact. She also says more work needs to be done.

“I'm really hoping that as the dollars start to flow, we see an improvement, we see that ability to access care in a much easier way, particularly in places like rural Colorado,” McCluskie said. “It's a moment when bolstering school based health centers and other community services is critical.”

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%.

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

House Majority Leader Monica Duran also emphasized how central mental health issues are for many lawmakers.

“Everywhere we go, it’s the conversation. Just making sure that we're highlighting the needs and trying to meet those needs, whether it's in our communities, or schools, wherever it might be,” Duran said.

There are also efforts from lawmakers to address adult mental health issues. House Bill 1071, if passed, would allow psychologists to prescribe psychotropic medications if they undergo additional education. Currently, only psychiatrists can prescribe medication for mental health issues, but there are only about 800 psychiatrists in Colorado compared to thousands of psychologists. House Bill 1071 aims to increase the number of prescribers in the state by allowing some psychologists to prescribe medication too.

I’m the Statehouse Reporter at KUNC, which means I help make sense of the latest developments at the Colorado State Capitol. I cover the legislature, the governor, and government agencies.
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