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GUEST COLUMN: A toolkit for strengthening mental health

By: Andrew Romanoff
May 20, 2018 Updated: May 20, 2018 at 4:10 am
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"It all started when I was 8."

That's when Brianna realized her absent father hadn't read the letters she had sent him. He mailed them back and called her a mistake.

Brianna tried to run away from home, hurt herself mentally and physically, and tried to kill herself more than once. She was bullied at school and sexually assaulted twice.

Then she got professional help.

On May 1, Brianna stood in front of a row of television cameras at the State Capitol to kick off Mental Health Month. Now 14, she credits her survival to her mother, her family and her therapist.

"No one should go through what I went through," Brianna said. "We need to talk to kids when something seems off."

Brianna is absolutely right. And she's not alone.

Each year, an estimated 1 million Coloradans, including 200,000 children, experience a mental health or substance use disorder. The first symptoms typically appear during adolescence.

In many cases, these disorders are neither diagnosed nor treated. Roughly half a million Coloradans go without the mental health care they need.

The result: increased rates of truancy, dropouts, suspensions, expulsions, hospitalization, incarceration, homelessness, joblessness and suicide. At last count, Colorado ranked 43rd in overall mental health care and 48th among youths.

We can do better, not only by recognizing and treating mental illness but by taking steps to strengthen every child's mental health. That's why Mental Health Colorado is releasing a new school toolkit (mentalhealthcolorado.org/schooltoolkit).

Our toolkit lays out 10 best practices, including strategies for screening students, training teachers and other staff to identify warning signs, and embedding mental health professionals in the school building.

The most effective strategies also engage parents and families. The toolkit highlights successful programs that do just that.

The key here is to make social and emotional learning a core component of a school's culture and curriculum. Mental health initiatives have produced significant gains in student performance and reductions in substance use and harmful behavior.

Why schools? Most children spend the bulk of their waking hours at school, and research shows that students are far more likely to obtain the care they need if it is available on site.

Of course, schools form only part of the solution here. We need a communitywide commitment to improve mental health.

While our toolkit targets the K-12 environment, earlier experiences play an equally critical role in a child's wellbeing and resilience. We're developing a best-practice guide for parents, pediatricians, child-care providers and others who serve children between birth and five.

We're recruiting advocates across the state: parents, teachers, students and other leaders who want to champion mental health. Join us at mentalhealthcolorado.org/brainwave.

One last point: Many of the strategies listed in our school toolkit cost money. A separate section spells out potential funding sources-including ballot measures like the one Colorado Springs voters approved in School District 11 last fall.

As D-11 has found, it's much less expensive to prevent or treat mental health and substance use disorders than to ignore them. And as Brianna told us, early intervention makes for healthier and happier kids.

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Andrew Romanoff served as the speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives. He is now the president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado (mentalhealthcolorado.org), the state's leading advocate for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

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