The proposed bill would require annual mental health evaluations of Colorado students

DENVER — A proposed bill introduced in Colorado’s 2023 legislative session aims to add annual mental health assessments for sixth graders through high school seniors.

House Bill 23-1003, also known as the School Mental Health Assessment, would include voluntary mental health assessments administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Schools can decide whether or not to participate in the assessment.

“Just like you would have an eye exam or an ear exam, this would be a mental health exam,” said state Rep. Daphne Michelson Jennett, D-District 32, one of the main sponsors of the legislation.

As it stands, the bill requires any school that decides to participate to notify parents in writing within the first two weeks of the start of the school year. Parents can decide if they want their child to receive the assessments, but Colorado law gives children over the age of 12 the right to consent to the assessments themselves.

Throughout her time in the Colorado Legislature, Jennett says she’s focused on youth mental health because she has a personal connection to the topic.

“My son, who tried to kill himself when he was nine years old in elementary school,” Jennette said. “He was so distraught and at the end of his strength that he thought he would be better off dead.”

Her son is now 20 years old, happy and healthy.

“Maybe we can start to change this level of depression in our youth.” That’s critical at this point,” Jennett said.

Jennett says the bill would build on the I Matter program, which was established in 2021.

“The I Matter program was born out of this desire to create safe spaces in the classroom after returning from COVID,” she explained. “It’s been very successful and we want to reach more kids and give more kids the opportunity to have therapeutic participation.”

The I Matter program provides students with six free therapy sessions. It is funded and administered by the Office of Behavioral Health and received $6 million through the America’s Rescue Plan Act following the passage of House Bill 22-1243. This funding allowed the program to continue serving all Colorado youth through at least June 30 of this year.

“I Matter is an entirely out-of-school program. It’s in the state of Colorado, and every school-aged child in Colorado has access to it,” Jennette said.

Jennett says HB23-1003 would add the element of in-person screening for students, as opposed to an online screening system.

“We’re just adding another element to the program and creating this opportunity for a child to interact with a human individual,” Jennette explained. “For some children, screening online may not be the right tool. Some kids may not know about I Matter, some kids may not have access to a computer to do the screening. It gives more access to schools that need it… Imagine a school that has dealt with a number of suicides, they might choose to use this program to get all their kids evaluated for therapy because of the trauma they’ve been through passed the school. And unfortunately, we know there are many communities like this one in Colorado.

Amber Wilson is a teacher in the Denver Public School System who also works with the Colorado Education Association. She says she noticed a dramatic emotional change in her students when they returned to the classroom after remote learning during the height of the pandemic.

“I would start to see them definitely struggle to keep up with the pace of academics because they had so much personal stuff on their mind,” Wilson said. “There’s still a lot of struggle with them… They’re crying out right now for help.”

Wilson says the I Matter program is off to a good start with six free therapy sessions, but she wonders what’s next.

“Six sessions is a start and through this program we will help connect with other resources or insurance or other free programs if needed because students need more support,” Jennett said in response to concerns about only six free therapy sessions .

Still, Wilson is a bit skeptical about HB23-1003.

“What scares me about this legislation, which sounds great, is how are we actually going to make sure it does what it’s supposed to do for kids?” Wilson asked.

Children’s Hospital Colorado supports HB23-1003 for a myriad of reasons, especially after what the hospital system experienced during the pandemic.

“Since March 2020, we’ve only had an increase in the volumes of behavioral health, children seeking care in our emergency department,” said Zach Zaslow, interim vice president of public health and advocacy for Children’s Hospital Colorado. “We weren’t sure what else to do. We needed to shine a light on the problem, really alert the kids.”

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency in May 2021 due to an increase in the number of children seeking emergency care.

“We continue to be very, very busy when it comes to mental health volumes,” Zaslow said. “We served just as many kids in 2022 as we did in 2021.”

Data from Children’s Hospital Colorado shows a 74 percent increase in patients visiting one of their emergency rooms for behavioral health issues between January and September 2022 compared to the first three quarters of 2019.

“We would like to see these volumes return to normal. We want to see children get the services they need in their homes, in their schools, with their primary care providers and not have to come to an urgent care hospital like Children’s Hospital Colorado to get the help. that they need,” Zaslow explained, “There are a lot of undiagnosed mental health issues that kids are really struggling with, especially during the pandemic.”

Zaslow said Children’s Hospital Colorado supports HB23-1003 because they want to see children get the mental health care they need, when they need it.

“This program is really designed to meet kids where they’re at, find those issues early and then refer them to services so they can hopefully get the support they need sooner,” Zaslow said . “So they somehow don’t move up the system and end up with more expensive or more acute mental health issues down the road.”

Mental Health Colorado would like to see the bill amended to ensure that assessments are reviewed promptly in the event a student expresses suicidal or homicidal ideation. The group would also like private schools to be included in the bill.

Christian Home Educators of Colorado (CHEC) opposes the bill, but was not available for an interview Tuesday. However, CHEC sent the following statement:

Families are the cornerstone of our society and the role of parents in children’s lives must be protected. HB23-1003 includes several troubling aspects that will interfere with the child/parent relationship.

Carolyn Martin, Director of Government Relations, CHEC

Jennett said the main form of pushback on the bill is that children as young as 12 can consent to a mental health evaluation even if their parents don’t.

“That’s been the law in Colorado for several years,” she said. “We don’t want to separate parents from their children. We want to bring parents and their children together again.”

The proposed bill is set as an item for a Feb. 7 hearing in the Committee on Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services.


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