DENVER – The past few years have been particularly difficult for Colorado students. Between the social pressures of growing up and the stress of the pandemic, many students have struggled.
A Healthy Kids Colorado survey found that in 2021, 40% of respondents reported stopping normal activities because they felt helpless or sad for at least two weeks.
Over the past few legislative sessions, lawmakers have passed legislation to provide more funding and resources to students. This year they hope to expand on this work.
Student mental health assessment
House Bill 23-1003, otherwise known as the School Mental Health Evaluation, would have voluntary mental health evaluations administered annually by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Schools could decide whether or not to participate in the assessments.
“It shows where they are, students are in school. We would bring the screeners into their school, just like you would get an eye or ear exam at school. But this time it’s a mental health assessment,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, said.
In its current form, the bill would require any school that chooses to participate to give parents written notice within the first two weeks of the start of the school year. Parents can decide if they want their child to receive the evaluations, but Colorado law gives children over the age of 12 the right to consent to the assessments on their own.
“Sometimes they need to talk to someone else who is not their parent. And they deserve confidentiality, just like we deserve confidentiality,” said Michaelson Jenet. “Our kids said, ‘Why do I have to talk to this therapist? Because they’re just going to call my mom afterwards and say everything I said.’ And so they won’t talk to the therapist, they’ll shut up, or they’ll lie. So, we had to create a way for them to have an authentic access to therapy.”
The bill will face its first committee hearing on February 7.
Help for substance abuse in students
Another bill aims to address issues of drug use and abuse among high school students. House Bill 23-1009 would establish a 12-person committee to connect students with resources to help.
The committee will be tasked with developing practices to identify students in schools who may need substance abuse treatment or an intervention.
Mandy Lindsay, co-sponsor of Bill, Rep. Mandy Lindsay, D-Aurora, says there are already prevention programs in schools to keep students from using drugs and alcohol to begin with, as well as programs focused on crisis intervention. This bill will help fill the gaps.
“Prevention is great. And then treatment for children who are really in crisis is obviously very important. It’s kind of for those everywhere in between. Many children are casual users of things, first time users of things. And so, it gives them an opportunity to even talk about things like vaping and alcohol,” Lindsay said.
Lindsay is a mother of four and says she knows the pressures students face with school, social groups, the pandemic and more. There are also more attractive options for teenagers these days such as vape pens.
She hopes this bill will give the state the direction it needs to curb student drug and alcohol use and help the students before things get to a crisis level.
“This behavioral health battle for young people right now is massive, and they’re calling us to tell us what their problems are, what they need. And so for me, as a mother, as a legislator, I’m like, ‘OK, I hear you. What can we do?’ And let’s get to it,” Lindsay said.
CPR training in schools
One bill that addresses physical health this session is Senate Bill 23-023. It would require the Colorado Department of Education to adopt a curriculum for teaching about CPR and the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs).
It also encourages all schools to adopt a CPR and AED curriculum in schools.
“We don’t mandate it, but we’re just trying to shine a light,” said Sen. Rep. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction, said.
Rich says this is already a standard for CDE, but the bill will shine a light on the need for more training and may encourage more students to consider the medical field.
“No matter where you are, if there is some incident that takes place, do you really want to just stand there and watch them die? Or you might do something based on this,” Rich said.
She acknowledges that not all schools will have the funding for these programs, but says there are grants to help and that this education can play a critical role in saving a life.
The bill passed its first committee test on Wednesday and continues in the legislative process.
Along with mental health assessments, lawmakers have also introduced bills to provide more information to students, along with hiring additional mental health professionals in schools.
House Bill 23-1007 requires after-school ID cards issued next school year to have crisis and suicide prevention contact information on them. If student IDs are not used, institutions will be required to distribute information about Colorado Crisis Services and 988 at the beginning of each semester.
This bill passed its first committee test on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 23-004 would allow school districts to employ licensed mental health workers who are not licensed by the Department of Education. Those professionals may be supervised by a mentor or school district administrator. The goal is to bring more resources to schools for student mental health.
The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
Lawmakers say even with all these bills, there’s still a lot of work to be done to help students, but they’re committed to finding ways to help.
“Every legislative session we chip away and we chip away and we chip away. Until we start seeing the suicide rate go down, until we start getting answers on the Healthy Kids survey that the kids are doing well, until the kids start telling us that they’re doing well, until the emergency rooms stop being filled, we have more work to do,” said Michaelson Jenet.
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