I Matter mental health campaign

A marketing campaign is underway to launch "I Matter," a new statewide program to help Colorado youth who are experiencing mental health problems due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new program offering free counseling sessions for all Colorado youth kicked off Wednesday, under a legislative mandate that state agency officials say should help the growing concern that the COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to adversely affect children’s well-being.

“This is revolutionary — if we want to reduce barriers to care, we have just reduced many of them,” state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet said Wednesday during a virtual rollout of “I Matter.” 

“I’m hopeful the program will provide a lifeline to those who have never had an opportunity to take advantage of care, regardless of their insurance or financial status,” she said.

"I Matter" has been established in the Office of Behavioral Health, under the Colorado Department of Human Services, and licensed specialists are being reimbursed a “competitive rate” for their work.

Lawmakers earmarked $9 million from the state's general fund to form the temporary program, which is set to expire June 30.

However, Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat from Commerce City who spearheaded the bill that formed the program, announced Wednesday she is drafting a new legislation proposing that "I Matter" become a permanent feature.

To date, 32 therapists have agreed to offer counseling services to teens, said Liz Owens, policy and communications director for the Office of Behavioral Health. But recruitment efforts are ongoing, she said.

The state hired Signal Behavioral Health to build the online platform.

After taking a short online survey to assess their mental health needs, children ages 18 and under and residents ages 21 and under who receive special-education services can obtain up to three telehealth sessions with a licensed therapist at no charge. In-person appointments will be available in some areas, officials said.

Children ages 12 and above do not need to notify their parents that they want to take part, Owens said. They can fill out a short application online and schedule an appointment by themselves. Children younger than 12 will need parental consent to sign up, she said.

The setup is thought to be the first of its kind in the nation, according to Owens.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind program and it really needs the urgency for our young people right now,” said Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services. “We’re bringing clinical support directly to our youth.”

Many adolescents will need just a few sessions to learn coping skills and improve their outlook on life, while others may benefit from ongoing therapy, she said.

Funds are available for children who are not covered under an insurance plan to continue with needed counseling, Barnes added.

“With early intervention, we can show youth that taking care of mental health is just as important and non-stigmatized as taking care of your physical health,” she said.

The program is confidential, follows medical privacy laws and can help teens "build skills and resilience to last a lifetime,” Barnes said.

Kierra Ehnes, a junior at Julesburg High School in Colorado, near the Nebraska border, said she never had problems with depression or anxiety before the pandemic, but like many other students felt that she wasn’t quite herself as she tried to handle the many societal changes.

“The pandemic tested my boundaries and overwhelmed some of my schoolmates,” she said. “There were feelings of emptiness and like it would never end.”

Shannon Harrison, a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado Springs who has a doctoral degree in social work, said she receives phone calls daily from frantic parents and caregivers, requesting therapy for their children.

“Parents and caregivers are frustrated and frazzled because providers' practices are full, and they are not taking new patients,” Harrison said.

The mental health needs children are displaying are not frivolous, she added.

“Children are experiencing severe anxiety and depression," Harrison said. "I have been treating children for 30 years, and I have never seen anything like this."

Despite years of work on improving behavioral health availability and tools, “We’ve been seeing youth mental health continuing to decline further and further,” said Michaelson Jenet.

As the pandemic started developing in March 2020, the number of children ages 12-17 seeking emergency services for mental health jumped 31%, Barnes said.

The demand hasn’t let up.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency for pediatric mental health in May, with double and triple the amount of children needing psychiatric treatment in many communities.

The Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado is still handling a large influx of patients reporting increased anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation, hopelessness and social disconnectedness, said Sarah Davis, spokeswoman for Children’s Hospital in Colorado Springs.

In September, 15 to 40 kids a day sought help for a mental health crisis at emergency departments in the Children’s Hospital system, she said.

Colorado ranks 42nd in the nation for prevalence of youth mental illness and access to care, according to the 2021 State of Mental Health in American Report by Mental Health America.

An advertising blitz on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, along with on-the-ground efforts at schools, churches and youth associations will introduce "I Matter" to Colorado teens.

Michaelson Jenet said she hopes the program reaches all 1.5 million children of eligible age in the state.

Informational materials and registration surveys are available at IMatterColorado.org, with appointments open within a two-week timeframe, organizers said.

Anyone experiencing an immediate mental health crisis can contact the Colorado Crisis Services hotline, 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255, for free, confidential counseling.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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