Audree Edwards, a social worker with Northeast Colorado BOCES, works with a second-grader during a conflict resolution and self-awareness exercise in the computer lab at Haxtun School District in Haxtun earlier this month. Edwards works with students in three school districts. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Facing alarming teen suicide rates, Colorado could put another $1 million a year into training teachers in what’s known as mental health first aid.

The Senate Education Committee on Thursday unanimously supported two related bills, one authorizing spending on training for teachers and another that would allow students to take an excused absence for mental health needs, like anxiety or depression.

Just as regular first aid courses teach lay people how to staunch bleeding from a wound or perform CPR, mental health first aid trains them how to talk someone through a crisis and recognize warning signs, as well as better understand the resources that are available to people in crisis.

“Our educators are on the front lines,” said state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat and the bill’s sponsor. “They see the risk factors, a child being sad when they were not the day before or when they’re more emotional. Our educators can redirect that situation and make sure that student gets the help they need.”

MORE: No Colorado school districts meet federal safety standards for behavioral health staffing, investigation shows

Kathryn Brown, a counselor at an alternative high school in Englewood, a south Denver suburb, described a recent incident in which a student with a history of self-harm grabbed a pair of scissors, ran from the classroom, and locked himself in a closet. Two teachers had to talk to the student through the door until help arrived.

But Brown also cautioned that mental health first aid, while critically important, cannot be a replacement for adding more counselors, social workers, and school psychologists, noting: “We need professional development for teachers, and we need more mental health staff.”


Erica Meltzer is Bureau Chief of Chalkbeat Colorado, where she also covers the legislature and statewide education issues. Erica was a founding editor of the local news site Denverite. Before that, she covered everything from housing and energy...