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Opinion: The reality is the state of children’s mental health is getting worse

Yet there are signs of hope, even if there is a long way to go

A year has passed since Children’s Hospital Colorado first declared a state of emergency for youth mental health last May. Not a single day has gone by that our organization has not grappled with the human impact of this staggering crisis across our health system.

Jena Hausmann, left, and Ron-Li Liaw, M.D.

It’s evident in the eyes of the social workers in our emergency department hunkering down to deescalate a young person experiencing crisis on a busy Friday night.

It’s visible among the multidisciplinary team during their third care team meeting of the day trying to troubleshoot step-down treatment options for a patient with complex neuropsychiatric needs, who has been ready for weeks to discharge from our hospital, but is still waiting for an appropriate placement to open up.

And it’s obvious on the faces of the young people themselves, their families and caregivers who would do anything to snap their fingers and resolve the challenges that brought them to our doors in the first place.

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Though we wish the world looked differently a year later, the state of emergency for youth mental health has only gotten worse. It looms large across our state and across the nation. To date, the number of kids seeking care for mental health needs in our emergency departments has been higher this year than last, and more than double our mental health volumes in the same time period in 2019.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released national data showing that in 2021, 37% of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

When we declared the state of emergency, we began to speak up beyond the walls of our hospital in a way we never had before. We turned up the Children’s Hospital Colorado megaphone:

We advocated for accountability from everyone, calling on every level of government to act and to partner with the private sector to make a plan and to make it a reality. We testified in committee rooms at the State Capitol, collaborated with municipal leaders to explore local strategies, hired an inaugural Mental Health-In-Chief to guide organizational change, connected with parents during virtual town hall meetings, shared resources with schools and the media, invested millions from generous local philanthropic support to expand our mental health services, and led suicide-prevention trainings for anyone and everyone who would listen.

Although we have not yet hit a turning point in this crisis, there are real reasons for hope. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and bipartisan state lawmakers delivered on their promise to prioritize youth mental health services among our state’s millions in one-time federal pandemic recovery funds. Thanks to the governor and legislative champions for youth mental health, children and youth will receive their fair share of these vital resources.  Dollars will be invested across vital domains, expanding access to services across the care continuum. Funds will support the mental health workforce, primary care and mental health integration, high-acuity residential bed capacity and school-based mental health services.

Across the country, many states likewise have tried to do their part to help kids with the surge of mental health needs. So, with the  conclusion of the legislative session in Colorado, we mark the passing of the first anniversary of the state of emergency announcement by acknowledging this important progress. At the same time, we recognize that bolder and more transformative efforts are needed at a national level. Now it’s time to amplify our voices with our Congressional representatives in Washington, D.C.

For all the leadership our bipartisan congressional delegation showed to lift up the healthcare system and economy during the pandemic emergency response, we now call on Congress to respond with similar urgency to the youth mental health crisis. The magnitude of the problem must be met with an equivalent policy solution.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

It’s up to each of our congressional leaders from every region of the state, and U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, to deliver on a generational and sustained investment in youth mental health that touches all four corners of the state.

The clock is ticking. Bipartisan mental health legislation currently pending in Congress could be acted on tomorrow if the calls for action were loud enough. These bills include the Strengthening Kids’ Mental Health Now Act , as well as the Children’s Mental Health Infrastructure Act and the Helping Kids Cope Act.

Amid a year of often unrelenting heartache, and at times when it felt like our teams were speaking into a void, our team members still got up each and every day and chose hope, providing care with compassion and supporting the needs of Colorado kids and families to confront life’s struggles. It is in this spirit that we recognize and thank all who have heard our pleas for help over the last year. We look onward with this same tenacity and resilient determination to advocate for youth mental health in the year ahead.


Jena Hausmann is CEO and president of Children’s Hospital Colorado. Ron-Li Liaw, M.D., is chief of mental health for Children’s Hospital Colorado. Both live in Denver.


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