Mental health of Colorado children remains in a state of emergency


Boram Kim


The pediatric health system in Colorado remains in a state of emergency, according to the Children’s Hospital Colorado.

The care provider, which declared a youth mental health state of emergency 1 year ago, said in its follow-up last month that conditions have worsened.


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Record numbers of kids and youth in mental health crises were reported across the pediatric health system last year. Recent data show a 23% increase in visitations to the hospital’s emergency departments for behavioral health concerns this year from the first quarter of 2021 and a 103% increase from the first quarter of 2019.

Access to care has also been an issue with just 22% of youth in Colorado who have a mental health condition with severe impairment receiving the care they need.

“This time of year is historically stressful for kids and families and we typically see a spike in the number of children and youth seeking mental health treatment,” said Ron-Li Liaw, MD, Mental Health-in-Chief for Children’s Colorado. 

“But with numbers from the first quarter of the year higher than we have ever seen before, we feel compelled to reach out to the community for help in combating the crisis, and to provide resources for families as they wait for solutions to take effect.”

The pandemic exacerbated a national crisis for youth mental health and substance abuse. A CDC study that found that 44% of American teens reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless” – up from 37% before the pandemic. It also found that 1 in 5 teens have contemplated suicide.

In 2021, lawmakers responded to Children’s Hospital Colorado’s call for action. Upon passage of a slate of bills this session and last, the state is expected to allocate over $150 million of one-time ARPA funding to address the mental health needs of children and youth across the care continuum from prevention to treatment.

Investments have been flowing to address a variety of issues affecting the mental health delivery system, including a temporary program to facilitate youth mental health services in response to identified needs and enhancing residential services for youth and families with behavioral health concerns.

“We launched our youth mental health platform where any school aged kid in Colorado can have access to three free mental health sessions,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet (D – Aurora), chair of the House Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee, speaking during a virtual meeting at the State of Reform Conference Colorado last fall.

“Our kids have been disproportionately impacted. Because for them, [the pandemic] is the first experience in life where possibly their parents lost a job. We had massive numbers of food insecurity that sort of just happened overnight, and how they were impacted, how they were not able to go to school, and how their normal flow was impacted has been exceptionally significant.”

Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing plans to spend up to $280 million in combined state and federal funds over the next two years on Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS).

ARPA requires states to expand Medicaid HCBS to address a variety of community needs including school-based services as well as rehabilitative and behavioral health services for children and youth.

The Behavioral Health Administration, which was established during the legislative session this year, has been working with providers and community groups to coordinate behavioral health efforts across agencies for an equitable, patient-centered delivery system of care for the state’s children and youth.