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‘Our kids have run out of resilience:’ Experts declare youth mental health ‘state of emergency’ in Colorado

A young person wearing jeans and Converse-style shoes sits on concrete steps holding their head in their hands
Leaders at Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a pediatric mental health “State of Emergency” on Tuesday.
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Leaders at Children’s Hospital Colorado issued an emotional call to action on Tuesday as they talked about the jump in serious youth mental health problems over the last year, ranging from depression to substance abuse to suicide.

During an hourlong virtual event, the panel of health experts and other officials declared a pediatric mental health “state of emergency” and urged state leaders to put financial resources and political muscle behind a comprehensive statewide system to support youth mental health.

“Right now, Colorado’s children uniquely need our help,” said Jena Hausmann, president and CEO of Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Now we are seeing our pediatric emergency departments and our inpatient units overrun with kids attempting suicide and suffering from other forms of major mental health illness.”

Panelists, including doctors, a Summit County commissioner, and the head of the state’s Rural Schools Alliance painted an alarming picture not just of children’s struggling to cope with life, but also of families, educators, and health care providers overwhelmed by the severity and relentlessness of the problem.

The hospital’s chief medical officer, David Brumbaugh, said during his more than 20 years in practice, “I’ve never seen anything like the demand we’ve seen for mental health services at Children’s in the last 15 months, but most acutely in the last three to four months.”

He spoke tearfully of a father he met whose ninth-grade son had attempted suicide the same week he got cut from his high school baseball team this spring. Brumbaugh noted that not making a sports team is a normal kind of childhood adversity, but said “our kids have run out of resilience. Their tank is empty.”

Panelists at Tuesday’s roundtable called for a host of changes, including new money for youth mental health and efforts to reduce bureaucratic constraints in the youth mental health system. They also said state leaders, including Gov. Jared Polis, should use executive orders and public health orders to expedite improvements to the system.

Heidi Baskfield, vice president of population health and advocacy at Children’s Hospital, said such orders could create a process to identify appropriate placements for children needing mental health treatment similar to what was done for COVID-19 patients during periods when the virus surged.

According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 87 children ages 10 to 18 died from suicide in 2020. While that is the highest number over the past six years, the number tends to fluctuate. During that period, the second-highest number of suicide deaths in that age group — 81 — occurred in 2017. Statewide, suicide deaths among people of all ages dropped slightly in 2020, to 1,294 from 1,306.

Data provided at Tuesday’s event shows pediatric mental health emergency room visits across the Children’s Hospital system were up 72% during January to April this year, compared with the same period two years ago. Suicidal ideation is consistently a top reason for such visits.

Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital, said even though COVID-19 illnesses and precautions have eased in recent months, children feel unprepared to return to normal after more than a year of disruption to their education and development.

“They’re burnt out and they feel so behind they don’t know how to catch up.” she said. “So there’s a sense of hopelessness and we know that hopelessness is the No. 1 predictor of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.”

Tamara Pogue, a Summit County commissioner, said a big part of Colorado’s underlying problem is the state’s underfunded mental health system. She cited a report from Mental Health America that ranked Colorado 42 among states on youth mental health, indicating a higher prevalence of youth mental illness and lower access to care than in most other states.

“We simply do not have the dollars available to build out the infrastructure necessary to create a safety net or a high-quality level of care,” she said. “We know what works, we simply can’t afford it in Colorado.”

Michelle Murphy, president of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said there’s a particular shortage of mental health providers and programs in Colorado’s rural communities.

“School-based supports are fantastic but I don’t want us to create this idea that teachers should be the front-line mental health providers for our students,” she said “We really need partnerships in our counties and dollars going to our counties to increase the [mental health] workforce.”

Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.

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