EDITORIAL: Juvenile mental health crisis demands treatment not just bandages

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A public plea by caregivers and officials at Children’s Hospital Colorado last week was a clear sign that Colorado must pay immediate attention to the recognition and treatment of mental health issues of children — and adults.

Providers at the Aurora hospital last week declared a “state of emergency” across the state because of the exploding number of children and adolescents experiencing mental illness, and especially acute mental illness.

“Our children are experiencing unprecedented levels of pediatric mental health issues,” said Jena Hausmann, president and CEO of Children’s Hospital Colorado, according to a Sentinel Colorado story last week by reporter Carina Julig. Chief nursing officer Pat Givens said that the hospital system does not have enough capacity for the number of children in crisis. “We can’t build enough beds to keep pace with the demand,” she said.

While some health officials point to the effects of the pandemic for creating a crisis within a crisis, the rising need for mental health services for Colorado children and adolescents has been a serious problem for the past several years.

Aurora Public Schools district voters approved a 2018 tax increase for the sole purpose of boosting mental health and behavioral resources when faced with the fact that teachers were being overwhelmed with troubled students, many of them in or near crisis.

Cherry Creek Public Schools just last year routed millions of dollars to a program to building dedicated facilities for student mental health treatment, a critical issue identified by school officials long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several scientific journals have documented an exponential increase in the incidence of mental health issues in children, adolescents and young adults over the past decade.

A 2019 Pew Research poll revealed that a stunning 70 percent of teenagers see anxiety and depression as a major problem among peers.

After last week’s compelling appeal by Children’s Hospital officials to not only acknowledge the crisis, but to act on it, pundits erroneously blamed restrictions imposed to prevent apocalyptic infection of COVID-19 as the cause of this mental health crisis. Such banter is folly for two reasons. First, the response to the pandemic has resulted in a number of economic and social crises in Colorado, and around the world. All of these, however, pale in comparison to the guaranteed collapse of the health-care system and widespread public panic that would have occurred had the government not responded like it did. A stunning 610,516 Americans have died from COVID-19 so far, 6,723 in Colorado. In places around the world where the health-care system failed, people immediately began dying from treatable maladies because hospitals were overrun with COVID-19.

Most importantly, the dubious assignment of blame discounts the fact that there’s a mental health crisis among adolescents, and all Coloradans, that will be here when pandemic restrictions end for good.

The problem is systemic in our society and especially in the health-care system. For generations, mental health issues have been tragically stigmatized and discounted. Insurance companies and even health-care providers have long treated mental health maladies and treatments as bonus care, equating it with cosmetic surgery as to their importance and responsibility.

Just as important, we have failed as a society to recognize psychological and behavioral problems, often brushing them off as a right of passage or immaturity.

Fixing a health-care system broken on many levels will take courage and persistence that’s yet to score a major victory at the Colorado Legislature. A valiant effort this year to create a radically different public option for health insurance resulted in a seriously diluted plan that will do little to ensure that thousands of children can get the mental health treatment they need.

The mental health crisis among Colorado children warrants a serious response. That means money and resources. Teachers need to immediately be trained to recognize the difference between teen angst and teen agony, and they need a system that provides immediate treatment once students have been identified and diagnosed.

Clinics, and especially pediatric health-care providers, must do more to regularly examine the mental health of young patients and have the ability to ensure treatment.

The benefits of finally, and rightfully, including mental health treatment in health-care systems and insurance programs benefits everyone. Research by the Centers for Disease Control regularly shows that about 70 percent or more of children and adolescents in the juvenile justice system suffer from mental illness.

It pays for all of us to acknowledge the alarm set off by Children’s Hospital and others, and to respond immediately.

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