Bill would fund screening of Colorado children for mood disorders, anxiety

David Heitz

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A lot of people are suffering from a COVID-29 hangover.

Mental anguish has built up while people have stayed holed up in their homes. Children haven’t gone to school in months, leaving some of them without appropriate daytime supervision. Loss of income due to workplace shutdowns has created remarkable stress for people living check to check.

In a nutshell, Colorado is extremely stressed out as a result of COVID-19. But the state is getting ready to spend tens of millions of dollars to treat the COVID-19 hangover. One piece of legislation requires the screening of children for mental health disorders.

Two bills have been introduced in each house of the Colorado legislature.

House Bill 21-1258 establishes a temporary program to facilitate youth mental health services in response to identified needs, including needs resulting from COVID-19. The program pays for up to three mental health sessions. A web-based portal available for youths and providers to interact must be up and running by May 31.

The bill makes $9 million available. “The COVID-19 pandemic has put extraordinary stress on all Coloradans, including young Coloradans who have experienced enormous disruptions to school, social activities, and support networks, resulting in increased isolation and, in many cases, new or exacerbated instability, particularly as a result of a parent's loss of employment or stable housing,” the bill states.

“Even before the pandemic, Colorado ranked in the bottom half of states for prevalence of mental illness and access to care. In 2018, Colorado had the seventh highest suicide rate in the nation, and suicide is the leading cause of death among Colorado youth.”

The bill goes on to describe in detail the mental health fallout COVID-19 has had on the state. “Since the pandemic began, the Colorado crisis services hotline has experienced a 30 percent increase in calls and texts, and Children's Hospital Colorado has seen a 10 percent increase in the number of kids who visit the psychiatric emergency department due to thoughts of suicide.

"As experts sound alarms about the state of youth mental health, both now and looking into the future, the general assembly recognizes that recovery from the pandemic will depend on youth having access to mental health support, regardless of their ability to pay for it.”

Screening children for mental health disorders

The Senate bill is Senate Bill 21-137, Behavioral Health Recovery Act. The $22 million legislation:

* Continues funding for medication-assisted treatment for drug addiction through June 2023. The bill also continues funding for other harm-reduction approaches to drug addiction treatment.

* Expands the Colorado state university AgrAbility project by providing funding for the project's rural rehabilitation specialists to provide information, services, and research-based, stress-assistance information, education, suicide prevention training, and referrals to behavioral health-care services. The services will be provided to farmers, ranchers, agricultural workers, and their families to mitigate incidences of harmful responses to stress.

* Provides funding to the Department of Public Health and Environment for collaboration between agencies on behavioral health issues.

* Requires managed care organizations to approve or deny behavioral health and substance abuse treatment services within 24 hours. If they deny services, they must give a specific reason.

* Includes funding for Medicaid to screen children and others for mood and anxiety disorders. “The screening must be made available to any person, regardless of whether the person is enrolled in Medicaid, so long as the person's child is enrolled in Medicaid,” the bill states.

Getting mental health care to rural areas

The bill also requires the department of human services, in collaboration with the department of agriculture, to contract with a nonprofit organization primarily focused on serving agricultural and rural communities in Colorado. The nonprofit will provide vouchers to individuals living in rural and frontier communities in need of behavioral health-care services.

The bill also:

* Creates a recovery residence accreditation body to make sure sober homes are just that.

* Requires the Office of Behavioral Health to establish a program to provide temporary financial housing assistance to individuals with a substance use disorder who have no supportive housing options when the individual is transitioning out of a residential treatment. This helps keep recidivism rates low.

* Creates the recovery support services grant program for the purpose of providing recovery-oriented services to individuals with a substance use and co-occurring mental health disorder.

Federal money funneled to mental health, too

Both bills are expected to pass the Democrat-controlled Colorado legislature. Federal money also was mavailable for substance abuse treatment and behavioral health as part of the COVID-19 relief package.

According to Mental Health Center Denver, programs funded include:

* Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Block Grants: Provides $3 billion for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grant and the Community Mental Health Services block grant ($1.5 billion each).

* Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics: Provides $420 million to SAMHSA.

* Provider Relief Funds: $8.5 billion in new money to the Provider Relief Fund for providers in rural areas and those serving rural communities.

* Other mental health/substance abuse funding: More than $450 million in new funding for SAMHSA and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) programming. This includes funding for mental health and addiction services, workforce education and training, suicide prevention and public education campaigns.

“Part of the Mental Health Center of Denver’s role in the community is to monitor legislative proceedings, like the COVID-19 relief packages on the state and federal levels,” the provider explains on their website. “Both of these plans provide much-needed help for Colorado families, individuals, and businesses.”

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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