Colorado Springs is one of the best places in America to live, and we pride ourselves in developing local solutions. We have come together to address the growing needs of our homeless population. We facilitated unprecedented growth and economic development. We are actively working to tackle challenges with affordable housing.
But today we face an urgent local crisis with roots that run far deeper than just Colorado Springs and addressing it must be our top priority: Since 2015, our community has been brought to its knees as clusters of suicide have taken the lives of more than 48 young people in El Paso County.
Colorado Springs parents, teachers, primary care providers, government officials and business leaders alike are searching for solutions that can better support our young people.
Unfortunately, Colorado Springs is not alone in this crisis. Colorado has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the nation, and youth suicides have rocked communities across our state. At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we have seen the rate of attempted suicide increase 600 percent since 2009.
Fortunately, local Colorado Springs leaders are stepping up to propose a bold and transformative statewide solution.
Local Republicans Sen. Bob Gardner and Rep. Lois Landgraf have teamed up with Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields and Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp to introduce Senate Bill 195, legislation that would move forward a set of evidence-based mental health programs, paired with a more efficient and effective mental health system of governance.
As Vince Bzdek noted in his March 9 piece in The Gazette, our mental health care system is broken. President John F. Kennedy had a vision for mental health care in this country that was never realized.
Anyone who has run a private business knows that effective results are built on clear lines of authority and accountability. Yet today in our state, responsibility for children’s mental health care is dispersed among multiple state agencies, health care providers and local governments, as well as schools, communities and families.
This fragmentation can mean that some children with emerging mental health needs miss the chance for early interventions. Other children — who have reached the point of crisis — are stuck in the system or denied care until they harm themselves or others.
These missed opportunities often mean much more costly treatments in the long run. As a result, Colorado taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars across a range of intensive services, including inpatient stays, emergency department visits, residential treatment and more. These precious staff and treatment beds should be available for children who can’t be effectively helped in a less restrictive environment. For the thousands of others, these expensive treatments are a last resort, needed only because the system has failed them time and again.
Solutions are within reach. Senate Bill 195 has the potential to transform our state’s mental health system and make it accountable to Colorado children, youth and families. It would establish an action-oriented, interagency collaborative body made of up child-serving leadership in the state, tasked with swiftly moving forward three key programs.
First, Colorado needs to implement cost-effective “wraparound” services for eligible children to empower families and allow children to get the right mental health service at the right time.
Second, we need to standardize the screenings and assessments that health care providers use to identify potential mental health concerns. Better tools mean earlier identification of needs and faster referral for services.
Third, the bill would direct the design of an integrated funding pilot project to improve access to services and resolve the challenges of a fragmented mental health system.
This work would be closely guided by an advisory council made up of families, youths, providers, local collaborative management program representation, and others.
Youth mental health in general, and suicide in particular, are heartbreaking, tough problems. They surely won’t be solved by one bill, or in one year. But real progress is within reach — if only we act.
We thank the sponsors of SB-195 for leading the way. Other lawmakers, and Gov. Jared Polis, should make mental health a top priority this year. To learn more and find out how you can help, visit www.ActionOnYouthMentalHealth.org.
Our kids can’t wait.
Margaret Sabin is president of Children’s Hospital Colorado in Colorado Springs.