DENVER — The past few years have been especially tough for Colorado students. Between the social pressures of growing up and the stress of the pandemic, many students have been struggling.
A survey by Healthy Kids Colorado found that in 2021, 40 percent of respondents said they stopped normal activities because they felt helpless or sad for at least two weeks.
Over the past several legislative sessions, lawmakers have passed legislation to provide more funding and resources for students. This year, they hope to expand that work.
Student Mental Health Assessment
House Bill 23-1003, also known as the School Mental Health Assessment, conducts a voluntary mental health assessment annually by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). It is up to the school to decide whether to participate in the assessment.
“It shows where the student is at school. We’ll bring the screener to their school, just like you do eye exams or ear exams at school. But this time, it’s a mental health evaluation,” D -Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, R-Commerce City.
In its current form, the bill would require any school that chooses to participate to provide written notice to parents within the first two weeks of the school year. Parents can decide if they want their child to be evaluated, but Colorado law does give children over the age of 12 the right to give their own consent to an evaluation.
“Sometimes they need to talk to other people who are not their parents. They deserve secrecy, just like we deserve secrecy,” Michaelson Jenet said. “Our kids say, ‘Why am I talking to this therapist? Because they’re going to call my mom afterward and say everything I said. So they don’t talk to the therapist, they shut up , or they will lie. So we have to create a way for them to actually get treatment.”
The bill will have its first committee hearing on Feb. 7.
Student Substance Abuse Help
Another bill seeks to address substance use and abuse among high school students. House Bill 23-1009 would create a 12-person committee to provide resources for students.
The committee’s mandate is to develop practices for identifying students in schools who may need substance abuse treatment or intervention.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Mandy Lindsey (D-Aurora) said schools already have prevention programs to discourage students from using drugs and alcohol in the first place, as well as programs focused on crisis intervention. This bill will help fill the void.
“Prevention is great. And then, obviously, treatment for kids who are really in crisis is really important. It’s anywhere in between. A lot of kids are casual users of things, first-time users of things. So, It gives them an opportunity to talk about topics like vaping and alcohol,” Lindsay said.
Lindsay, a mother of four, said she knows the pressures students face at school, social groups, the pandemic and more. There are even more enticing options for teens these days, such as vape pens.
She hopes the bill will give the state the direction it needs to curb student drug and alcohol use and help students before things reach crisis levels.
“The behavioral health struggle of young people right now is huge, clamoring for us to tell us what their problem is, what they need. So for me, as a mom, as a legislator, I thought, ‘Okay , I hear you. What can we do?’ Let’s get started,” Lindsay said.
CPR training in schools
One bill this session that touches on physical health is Senate Bill 23-023. This will require the Colorado Department of Education to adopt instructional curriculum on CPR and the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs).
It also encourages all schools to adopt CPR and AED classes in schools.
“We’re not mandating it, but we’re just trying to send a light,” said Sen. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction.
Rich said this is already standard at CDEs, but the bill will clarify the need for more training and may encourage more students to consider entering the medical field.
“Wherever you are, if something happens, are you really going to stand there and watch them die? Or you can do something based on that,” Rich said.
She recognizes that not all schools will fund these programs, but says there are grants to help and that this kind of education can play a key role in saving lives.
The bill passed its first committee test on Wednesday and entered the legislative process.
In addition to mental health assessments, lawmakers have introduced bills to provide more information to students and hire more mental health professionals in schools.
House Bill 23-1007 requires crisis and suicide prevention contact information to be included on higher education ID cards issued for the next academic year. Without student ID cards, institutions would have to distribute information about Colorado Crisis Services and 988 at the beginning of each semester.
The bill passed its first committee test on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 23-004 would allow school districts to hire licensed mental health professionals who are not licensed by the Department of Education. These professionals may be supervised by a tutor or district administrator. The goal is to bring more resources to schools to promote students’ mental health.
No hearings have yet been scheduled on the bill.
Lawmakers said that even with all these bills, there is still much work to be done to help students, but they are committed to finding ways to help.
“Every legislative session, we’re cutting, we’re cutting, we’re cutting. Until we start seeing suicides go down, until we start responding to the Healthy Kids survey that kids are doing well, until Kids start telling us they’re fine, and until the emergency rooms are no longer overcrowded, we have more work to do,” Michaelson Jenet said.
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