Amid mental health crisis, thousands of Colorado children are getting free therapy under new program

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More than 3,300 Colorado youths have received free state-funded therapy sessions over the past nine months as part of a program to address the youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID pandemic -19.

This number is expected to increase with a new school year and extended program funding.

I Matter, which is administered by the Behavioral Health Administration, is a statewide program that connects youth and teens with up to six free counseling sessions. It was created by a 2021 bill that appropriated an initial $9 million from the state’s general fund for its implementation and was extended during this year’s legislative session with another $6 million credit from state American Rescue Plan Act funds.

“The legislation that funds I Matter aims to respond quickly to the crisis in young people’s mental health. I think we definitely did,” said Charlotte Whitney, BHA’s acting deputy director of communications. “We really implemented low-barrier access to care, and that was the intention. To me, that shows success.

Participants start I Matter by taking an online survey that acts as a mental health screening, with children under 12 taking it with their parents. The survey asks about their symptoms, home and family environment, and substance use. If the survey concludes they are good candidates for counseling, they can register and connect with one of over 180 providers for an appointment.

This simple survey approach to registration is part of a “low barrier” entry model that providers find important. Often a teacher or school counselor will refer a student to the program.

“It is a great need. I see parents struggling to find an easy entry into counseling for their child without being overwhelmed,” said Tim Swanson, a licensed clinical social worker from Colorado Springs who is an I Matter provider. Eliminating the need for a traditional intake session and paperwork allows him to “understand” why a child has made an appointment with him.

Swanson said he saw between 30 and 40 clients through I Matter, often working with children under 12. Some were only 7 years old. He estimates an almost even split between telehealth and in-person appointments.

About 15% of young people in Colorado reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year, up from 14% in 2021, according to data from Mental Health America. About 39% of Colorado youth with a major depressive episode reported receiving no mental health services in 2022. Overall, Colorado ranked 13th for its prevalence of youth mental illness and its Health care access. Nationally, more than a third of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These are the types of statistics that I Matter aims to improve.

Reaching youth across the state

Since its launch in October 2021, 3,379 children from 55 counties have received at least one free therapy session through the program, according to data from the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration. A significant number of them return for more care: More than 2,500 have participated in a second session. In total, there have been nearly 11,000 sessions so far. The average cost to the state per session is $144.

Children of all age groups sought help through I Matter, with approximately 1,200 children under 12 served, 950 users aged 12-14 served and another 1,200 users aged 15-18 years served. The program has served approximately 1,900 girls, approximately 1,300 boys, and 178 children who identify as non-binary.

The program saw modest uptake in its first few months and saw a spike in enrollment in the spring of this year, with more than 500 children seeking first dates in March, April and May. It is primarily used in the population center of the state along the Front Range. Jefferson County had 472 children using the program, El Paso County had 410, and Arapahoe County had 379.

A unique aspect of I Matter is its inclusion of care navigators who can help connect families to other needed resources and services. They can help a teenager find care outside of the I Matter facility and connect with any teenagers on a waiting list or who have not yet registered for a counseling appointment.

“If you’re contacting I Matter, let’s say you’re having presentation issues that concern you. You’re depressed, you’re anxious, you’re sad, you’re lonely. It’s nice to have a support system like (browsers of care) when you already feel stretched,” Whitney said.

Swanson said many of the clients he sees through the program are “high-functioning” children who struggle with anxiety or depression. The disruption to in-person learning caused by the pandemic, combined with potential economic stressors at home as caregivers struggle to regain stability, creates a complex situation.

“It complicates things so much for these young people,” he said. “Having to go back to school – they didn’t do any tests for two years or a year or whatever. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen towards the end of this school year is the anxiety of taking tests and getting to the next level. It was very stressful for everyone without exception.

I Matter has been extended until at least next June and could continue until June 2024 depending on funding. This will give the program the opportunity to serve more young people and to evolve in the way it offers its services.

“I think we’re really building a strong behavioral health system in Colorado,” Whitney said. “When you can provide young people with a high-access, low-barrier mental health resource and give them a positive experience at such a young age, it will encourage them to use mental health support throughout their lives. We learn a lot. »

Those interested in getting advice under the program can find out more at IMatterColorado.org.

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