In what is believed to be a first of its kind partnership, the Cherry Creek School District will be working with Children’s Hospital Colorado and the CU Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine to operate its mental health day treatment center for students.
The center is a response to what providers have described as a pediatric mental health “state of emergency” in Colorado, as a rise in acute mental health needs in children and teens runs up against a shortage of providers.
Officials hope that what they are doing can become a model for hospitals in Colorado and across the country.
“Schools districts, not only in Colorado but across the country, are struggling with the mental health of their kids, and they’re struggling to find clinical placements and clinical help,” said Tony Poole, Cherry Creek’s assistant superintendent for special populations. “We really do hope that this can be a model for schools not only in Colorado but across the country.”
The center is being built with money from the $150 million bond measure that voters approved in the 2020 election, and is expected to cost $15 million. Construction is underway on the facility at the district’s Joliet campus, and it is slated to open in the fall of 2023.
On average, the district has about 75 students a year enrolled in a mental health treatment facility. Over the years, the district’s placement options for students with mental health needs have shrunk from over 77 programs to under 30. Most recently, the Aurora Mental Health Center closed its Hampden Youth Center, where CCSD sent students every year.
Poole said that Cherry Creek put out a request for partners for mental health providers for the center at the beginning of the last school year. Children’s Hospital and CU applied, and went through two rounds of interviews with the district.
“We were blown away and just awed by the talent and the power that they brought into the room,” Poole said. “We are so incredibly excited to partner with this group. It’s going to be amazing for kids.”
Dr. Bruno Anthony, chief of psychology for the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said that the hospital believed it would be the best clinical provider for the district because of the strong day treatment model it has been developing on the Anschutz campus as well as its Colorado Springs campus.
At times, day treatment “has tended to be a little more than babysitting,” Anthony said. At the treatment center, students will be able to receive strong evidence-based support for their mental health needs without falling behind on their education.
Poole said he believes Cherry Creek will be the first school district in the nation to undertake a mental health partnership of this caliber.
“We’ve looked and we have not found a school district-built and operated day treatment facility with a partnership that offers this level of clinical support.”
The treatment center will have educational staff from the district, while CU and Children’s Hospital will provide the staff for the clinical aspect of the program.
Depending on severity level, the treatment center will be able to serve about 60 kids at a time, and expects to have 20 to 30 clinical staff. The staff will come from both CU and Children’s Hospital and will include clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and other types of mental health providers.
Dr. Ron-Li Liaw, Mental Health in Chief at Children’s Hospital and director of the division of child and adolescent mental health at CU Anschutz’s department of psychiatry, said that finding providers for the center will be “a major recruitment effort” and that efforts are already underway to start bringing people on board.
Though there has been an ongoing mental health worker shortage, she believes that the opportunity to work in a rigorous school-based setting will be attractive to many people.
“I think many of us who go into child mental health are really excited about working in schools and don’t always have the opportunity for these types of innovative partnerships,” she said. “It’s almost like a start-up venture for folks in the mental health field.”
The treatment center will be equipped to work with students dealing with a range of psychological issues, Anthony said, including students who are dealing with comorbid problems such as eating disorders or substance abuse.
Over the past several years, Children’s Hospital has seen an increase in both the severity of mental health issues that young people are experiencing as well as the number of people seeking treatment, Liaw said. According to the hospital, the demand for acute behavioral health services increased by 90% in 2021 compared to 2019.
“We’ve seen the whole range at a higher intensity and higher volume with less resources available across the state of Colorado,” she said.
Liaw is the first person to serve as mental health in chief at the hospital, and her position was created specifically as a response to the acute need. Part of why she is so excited about working with the school district is because of its focus on prevention, which she hopes will help lessen the number of young people arriving at the hospital in crisis.
“We’re used to putting out fires,” she said. “If we don’t invest in partnerships and prevention then we will always have full emergency rooms, and we will always have full inpatient units in hospitals.”