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Children's Hospital Colorado will be the home base of Partners for Children's Mental Health, a grant-funded program designed to train physicians statewide to identify and treat mental health issues in children. (Photo provided by Children's Hospital Colorado)

A children’s mental health initiative announced Tuesday could transform how Colorado identifies and treats kids and teens with depression, anxiety or eating disorders at the doctor and in the classroom.

Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced a $2.8 million grant to launch a collaboration between Children’s Hospital Colorado and Mental Health Colorado that state leaders called “transformational.”

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is worried the state has a youth mental health crisis on its hands. On Tuesday she announced a grant-funded program that will help train doctors to identify mental health problems in their teen patients. (Photo provided by Colorado Attorney General’s office)

“We need bold action to save lives and to get mental health treatment to Colorado children,” Coffman said. “We have a crisis on our hands.”

Colorado ranks 48th out of 50 states in its mental health services for children, according to a new report from Mental Health America. Suicide in this state is the leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24.

The money, from consumer-protection settlements, will fund the new Partners for Children’s Mental Health at the hospital, which will develop screening tools for pediatricians and family doctors throughout the state.

The center will hold training events for doctors, as well as teachers and other school staff. It also will help doctors find mental health services for youth, as well as study payment solutions to make mental health treatment affordable for families.

Mental Health Colorado, which will receive $800,000 of the $2.8 million, will train every school district in the state on how to choose and implement suicide-prevention programs. The organization will share a “mental health toolkit” with the state’s 178 school districts.

“Mental health ought to be a public priority, not a private charity,” said Andrew Romanoff, president of Mental Health Colorado.

Among the 16,000 messages to Colorado’s Safe2Tell anonymous help line for teens last year, 2,700 were about suicide.

The attorney general said she was thinking of parents whose “last and best hope is for their child to get arrested” so a judge will order mental health treatment, or the adolescents who are expelled from school because they are dealing with untreated mental illness. Mostly, Coffman said, she was thinking about the parents “who learned too late that their child was feeling so hopeless, so alone and such a failure in their young life, that suicide was the only answer.”

Partners, the hospital’s new “center for excellence,” now can hire 12 staff members, thanks to the grant, said Shannon Van Deman, executive director.

Important work to prevent suicide is happening across Colorado, but in pockets, Van Deman said. The goal going forward is to collaborate and create statewide efforts. In Massachusetts, for example, doctors are required to screen for mental health and use one of the screening exams approved by the state, she said.

“When we come together, we can get greater change for children and families in Colorado,” she said.

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...