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Amid mental health crisis, thousands of Colorado kids get free therapy in new program

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Amid mental health crisis, thousands of Colorado kids get free therapy in new program

Jul 26, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Sara Wilson
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Amid mental health crisis, thousands of Colorado kids get free therapy in new program
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Colorado ranks high among U.S. states in the level of services available to children on the autism spectrum. (Thitaree Sarmkasat)

Over 3,300 Colorado youth have received free therapy sessions funded by the state in the last nine months through a program aimed at addressing the youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That number is expected to grow with a new school year and extended program funding.

I Matter, which is administered through the Behavioral Health Administration, is a statewide program that connects youth and adolescents with up to six free counseling sessions. It was created through a 2021 bill that appropriated an initial $9 million from the state general fund for its implementation and was extended during this year’s legislative session with another $6 million appropriation from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funds.

“The legislation that funds I Matter is for rapid response to the youth mental health crisis. I think we’ve definitely done that,” said Charlotte Whitney, BHA’s interim deputy communications director. “We’ve really set up low-barrier access to care, and that was the intent. That to me is showing success.”

Participants begin I Matter by taking an online survey that acts as a mental health screening, with children younger than 12 years old taking it with their parents. The survey asks questions about their symptoms, home and family environment and substance use. If the survey concludes they are good candidates for counseling, they can register and connect with any of over 180 providers for an appointment.

That simple survey approach for registration is part of a “low barrier” entry model that providers think is important. Often, a teacher or school counselor will direct a student to the program.

“It’s a great need. I see parents who are struggling with trying to find a simple entry into counseling for their child without being overwhelmed,” said Tim Swanson, a licensed clinical social worker from Colorado Springs who is an I Matter provider. Cutting out the need for a traditional intake session and paperwork allows him to “get to the meat” of why a child scheduled an appointment with him.

Swanson said he has seen between 30 and 40 clients through I Matter, often working with children younger than 12 years old . Some have been as young as 7. He estimates a near even split between telehealth and in-person appointments.

About 15% of youth in Colorado reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year, up from 14% in 2021, according to data from Mental Health America. About 39% of youth in Colorado with a major depressive episode reported not receiving any mental health services in 2022. Overall, Colorado ranked 13th for its prevalence of youth mental illness and access to care. Nationally, over one-third of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those are the types of statistics I Matter aims to improve.

Reaching youth across the state

Since its start in October 2021, 3,379 children from 55 counties have received at least one free therapy session through the program, according to data from Colorado Behavioral Health Administration. A sizable number of them return for more care: Over 2,500 participated in a second session. In total, there have been nearly 11,000 sessions so far. The average cost to the state per session is $144.

Children of all age groups have sought help through I Matter, with about 1,200 children younger than 12 years old served, 950 users between the ages of 12 and 14 served and another 1,200 users between the ages of 15 and 18 served. The program has served about 1,900 girls, about 1,300 boys and 178 children who identify as non-binary.

The program saw modest uptake in its first few months and spiked with signups in spring of this year, with over 500 children seeking first appointments in March, April and May. It is mostly used in the state’s population center along the Front Range. Jefferson County has had 472 children use the program, El Paso County has had 410 and Arapahoe County has had 379.

One unique aspect to I Matter is its inclusion of care navigators who can help families connect to other needed resources and services. They can help an adolescent find care outside of the I Matter structure and touch base with any adolescents on a waitlist or who have not yet signed up for a counseling appointment.

“If you’re reaching out to I Matter, let’s assume you’re having some presenting issues that are causing you concern. You’re depressed, you’re anxious, you’re sad, you’re isolated. It’s nice to have a support system like (the care navigators) when you’re already feeling low-resourced,” Whitney said.

Swanson said that many of the clients he sees through the program are “high functioning” children who are struggling with anxiety or depression. The disruption to in-person learning caused by the pandemic, combined with potential economic stressors at home as caregivers work to regain stability, creates a complex situation.

“It just complicates it so much for these youngsters,” he said. “Having to go back to school — they didn’t do any testing for two years or one year or whatever. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen towards the end of this school year, is the anxiety of testing and moving on to the next grade level. It was very stressful for all of them without exception.”

I Matter has been extended until at least next June and could continue until June 2024 depending on funding. That will give the program an opportunity to serve more youth and evolve in how it delivers services.

“I think we are really building out a solid behavioral health system in Colorado,” Whitney said. “When you can provide a high access, low barrier mental health resource for youth and provide them a positive experience at such a young age, that will encourage them to use mental health support throughout their lifetime. We’re learning a lot from this.”

Those interested in seeking counseling through the program can find out more at IMatterColorado.org.