The state is launching a new program to offer up to three free mental health counseling sessions each year to Coloradans age 18 or younger. It offers the same counseling options for those age 21 or younger who are receiving special education services. Visits will be with a licensed behavioral health physician, primarily via telehealth.
Lawmakers have approved $9 million to start the I Matter program, in response to what researchers call a mental health crisis for young people. Governor Jared Polis signed a bipartisan bill to create the program, with one-time funds, that is part of the Colorado Administration’s Return Roadmap.
Kira Innes, a student at Julesburg High School in northeastern Colorado, said needs only increased during the pandemic.
“Living in a small town community, the death of a teen severely affects the home. I remember hearing about teen suicides in every area around us, Akron, Marino, and Ray,” all because the kids felt there was no end and that they had no way out. “
The program starts now, with an ad batch starting soon.
The pandemic has affected mental health in Colorado, according to the new Colorado Health Survey. More than a third of Coloradoans over the age of 16 said their mental health has been negatively affected by the COVID-19 virus. This included more than half of the youth. Nearly a quarter of them said they experienced poor mental health for at least a week in the past month, according to a survey of more than 10,000 Colorados for the Colorado Health Institute.
Colorado Children’s Hospital declared a children’s mental health emergency in May with a surge in suicide attempts and calls for psychological help for children.
Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jennett, a Democrat from Commerce City, said it was important that counseling be free and not require insurance.
“This is revolutionary. If we want to reduce the barriers to care, we have just reduced a lot of them.” “It doesn’t matter if you have access to insurance. It doesn’t matter if you have the money. What matters is access to a phone or a computer” to access the new services.
“Young people told us they had anxiety, depression and other behavioral health needs,” said Lieutenant Governor Diane Primavera.
Colorado is believed to be the only state with a program that offers free therapy sessions to young adults, according to an analysis by the National Conference of state legislatures.
“It’s clear that our children need help,” said Senator Rob Woodward, a Republican from Loveland, who was the lead sponsor of legislation to create the program. We have heard painful stories from our youth during (the hearings). It has become quite clear that we need to connect them with licensed service providers for free counseling sessions.”
During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill for the state’s Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) to create a temporary mental health services program to offer three free mental health sessions with a licensed caregiver. The service providers will be paid at a competitive rate for their services.
The OBH is also required to launch a public awareness campaign. It will include digital ads on platforms like TikTok and Snapchat, and outreach to schools and youth groups. It aims to reach youth across the state and target priority population groups, including Black, Latinx, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Transgender + Colorado. The agency got feedback from young Coloradans about the campaign and the new website and they helped choose the name of the I Matter program.
Paid ads launch around November 1st.
The OBH is to report to the legislature on the number of young people who have received services and services provided by June of next year.
Funding currently ends June 20, 2022, but Representative Jennette said she believes the needs of Colorado’s youth will necessitate the program’s continuation.
“It was meant to be a one-time program. Now I’m going to tell you a secret, if you promise not to tell anyone, you’ve already drawn a bill to make this program continue,” Jennette said. “I think that’s something we need on an ongoing basis in Colorado.”
Liz Owens, director of policy and communications, said the agency is now hiring therapists. She said 32 therapists have been contracted and is looking to hire more. The program now contains date slots available for young people.
“We’re working every day to add doctors to this,” Owens said.
To start, the young man will take a secret survey. Then the program will match them with a doctor who can best support them. Regardless of the responses, they are eligible for three free counseling sessions. If the child is 11 years old or younger, the parent or guardian will need to fill out the questionnaire.
Owens said the agency will assess how to deal with young people who may need more than three sessions. “We kind of want to see what the initial need is here, but we’ll assess very quickly whether we feel the funding will allow us to push for more than three sessions,” she said.
Representative Jennett said her goal is for the program to have a widespread impact “in some way, shape, or form, touching every child in Colorado.” With earmarked funding, government projects can serve more than 10,000 young people, depending on demand and availability of therapists.
“Ultimately we want to try to get every child interested to be able to access that,” she said.
Kira Innes, a high school student, said she believes the services will be in high demand. She described how the pandemic had disrupted her life and the lives of her classmates. “The COVID pandemic has made them feel lonely and isolated,” she said. Ennis thanked state officials for their efforts. “You make a huge impact in the lives of so many. For that, I couldn’t be more grateful.”