When it comes to youth mental health, Colorado doesn't score well. Mental Health in America
ranks it 48th in the country, in fact, according to a set of factors that include rates of youth depression, substance use and available services.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
. (Nationally, it's the third leading cause).
And Colorado ranks ninth in the nation for overall suicides, with El Paso County among the hotspots. In 2016, there were 15 completed youth suicides, a jump from seven in 2014 and 14 in 2015, according to El Paso County Public Health
These statistics are a dismal way to start the conversation about how to treat mental health in schools, but represent both a crisis and an opportunity, says Andrew Romanoff, CEO of Mental Health Colorado
"The crisis is that kids are struggling and suffering and too often dying on account of untreated mental illness," Romanoff says. "And the opportunity I think here is to become a national leader. I mean Colorado is growing fast, but we’re still a relatively small state, and we could turn this state around. We could become a national leader in mental health."
Mental Health Colorado hopes to help the state edge closer to that goal through its School Mental Health Toolkit
, a free online resource released in June meant for schools, districts, teachers and parents across the state. It outlines steps schools can take — such as screenings, suicide prevention and wellness plans — to combat mental illness and keep their students safe.
Romanoff, a former state House speaker, wants to make the toolkit available in every district around the state. With 178 districts and 1,800 schools, that's no small task. Mental Health Colorado is working with local allies to launch the toolkits in schools, and seeking grant money to make the strategies easier to implement.
There's a crucial difference between mental health challenges students face now, versus just a generation ago, Romanoff points out.
"In the era of social media where your life is often online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that can add to the stress," he says. "It used to be that your chances of being bullied might have gone down dramatically once you got out of school, and now that threat can follow you home and keep you up all night and drive you to some pretty bad consequences."
To help parents and kids understand and deal with that reality, Mental Health Colorado also provides free five-minute, doctor-approved online screenings. The informal questionnaires test for a range of disorders, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD and more.
There's also a questionnaire for parents, which helps them identify whether their child may be showing signs of mental illness.
Romanoff says he's heard from some districts that they've met with resistance from parents when trying to implement new strategies. For that reason, he says it's important to educate parents in particular about mental health.
"Parents don’t want their kids to be labeled or diagnosed or branded," he says. "Some parents feel like it’s a reflection on their skills as parents. What we’re trying to help people understand is that mental illness is not a character flaw. It’s a medical condition. And it doesn’t have to be a death sentence: It’s treatable."
Anyone — teens, parents, teachers, readers — experiencing a mental health crisis can call Colorado Crisis Service's free, confidential number at 844/493-8255, or text “TALK” to 38255.