LETTER: We must act on youth mental health

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DEAR EDITOR: It’s a tragedy we’ve seen in our local news far too frequently: Aurora is in a state of crisis for child and youth mental health. Clusters of suicide in our local middle and high schools — Eaglecrest, Smoky Hill, Aurora West, Cherry Creek to name a few — have shaken our community to its core. And more broadly, in 2017, suicide was the leading cause of death for children ages 10-24 in Colorado.

These statistics are heartbreaking. As Aurora’s state Senator, I know our kids can’t wait any longer for the mental health solutions that are within reach this year. That’s why we must act now to dramatically improve mental health at the state legislature.

I’ve partnered with local Democrat Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp and Republicans Sen. Bob Gardner and Rep. Lois Landgraf to champion Senate Bill 195, bipartisan legislation that would immediately advance three evidence-based mental health programs to improve access and treatment for children and youth in our state.

First, SB-195 would 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. Demonstration projects in Colorado and proven examples from other states have driven substantial improvements in child mental health and well-being — and saved millions of dollars. Colorado could save $25-$35 million in state taxpayer funds each year if kids can get the treatment they need rather than going undiagnosed.

Second, SB-195 standardizes the screenings and assessments that healthcare providers use to identify potential behavioral 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 behavioral health system.

Youth mental health is a bipartisan issue. The solutions in Senate Bill 195 have strong support on both sides of the aisle, as well as the support of partners such as Children’s Hospital Colorado, Mental Health Colorado, The Kempe Center, Partners for Children’s Mental Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics and many more. But my peers in the legislature are faced with a crowded agenda and many competing priorities. I urge Colorado’s legislature to join me in prioritizing an issue that affects children and families in every community in our state by ensuring SB-195 receives the funding it needs to begin to transform our state’s mental health system.

SB-195 has the potential to transform our state’s mental health system to better serve Colorado children, youth and families — and it has the potential to do so this year. The gaps in our state’s mental health system won’t be solved over night, but together we can take a big step toward a more comprehensive system to support our kids. We need to make mental health a top priority this year — the time for change is now.

To learn more about the bill, and other mental health legislation under consideration, and to contact your local representatives, visit www.ActionOnYouthMentalHealth.org.

— State Senator Rhonda Fields, via [email protected]