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Colorado lawmakers weigh bill for annual mental health screenings for sixth through 12th graders

March 21, 2023, 10:06 am
battle mountain high school
Battle Mountain High School in Edwards.

A bill that would make it easier for schools to provide mental health assessments and connect students to therapy passed the Colorado House of Representatives on Monday.

House Bill 23-1003 would allow public schools to participate in a voluntary mental health screening program for sixth through twelfth graders and refer them to treatment if needed, primarily through the state’s free youth therapy I Matter program.

The bill passed through the House on third reading Monday on a 43-19 vote.

Bill sponsor Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said she was motivated to run the legislation this session after alarming statistics from the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey that showed nearly 40% of Colorado youth reported feeling depressed for at least two straight weeks, to the point they did not want to participate in their usual activities.

“That’s a pretty significant indicator for severe depression,” she said. “I wanted to come up with a way for kids to learn about therapy and access to therapy through screenings in school. We have the I Matter program, so we have somewhere to send kids where they can get help.”

In a post-pandemic environment in which Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency for youth mental health, Michaelson Jenet said screening can be a powerful preventative tool for students under profound pressures.

Some schools already provide annual mental health screenings for students. This bill would create a program run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and allow other schools that might not have as many resources to participate. Parents could opt their child out of the assessment, but students 12 years and older could decide if they want to participate even if their parents don’t want them to.

Under the program, if the provider finds that a student could benefit from treatment, their parents will be notified and given information about the I Matter program, which has provided free therapy services to over 5,500 Colorado youth since it launched in October 2021.

The I Matter program is currently funded until June 2024, and Michaelson Jenet said she hopes to see it made permanent.

If the assessment provider finds that a student is in crisis — at-risk for attempting suicide, physical self-harm or harming others, for example — the school would follow its crisis response protocol.

The Colorado Health Institute endorsed the concept of universal mental health screenings in schools in a report published earlier this month.

“Schools are uniquely positioned to help address this (mental health) crisis by meeting youth where they already spend most of their day. Screening all students for social and emotional needs strengthens prevention, detection, and early intervention,” the report authors wrote.

Organizations including the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Research Council, the Institute of Medicine, the Healthy Schools Campaign, Mental Health America also recommend screening all students.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m on a little bit of an island trying to support our kids. But there’s really a recognition in the community that our kids deserve immediate attention, and this is one way to do it,” Michaelson Jenet said.

Republicans in the House opposed the bill on the grounds that a program where students could participate even if parents opt out violates parental rights. Most of the floor debate centered on whether 12 years old is too young for students to decide whether to undergo a mental health assessment. Existing Colorado law allows minors 12 years and older to seek therapy without their parent or guardian’s consent.

Democrats hold healthy majorities in both the House and Senate this session.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Lisa Cutter of Littleton.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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