Young Coloradans can now receive three mental health counseling sessions for free

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Kate Hartman is a 7th grader in Denver who has struggled with mental health issues in the past, and like many students her age felt sad and isolated after schools closed in the pandemic. But she got help, and used quarantine to develop coping strategies. She loves to bounce on her trampoline, play with her dog Emmy, and teach herself ukulele.

The state is launching a new program to provide up to three free mental health counseling sessions each year for Coloradans ages 18 and younger. It's offering the same counseling options for those 21 and younger who are receiving special education services. The visits will be with a licensed behavioral health clinician, primarily via telehealth. 

Lawmakers approved $9 million dollars to start the I Matter program, in response to what researchers call a youth mental health crisis. Governor Jared Polis signed a bipartisan bill to create the program, with one-time money, that’s part of the administration’s Colorado Comeback roadmap.

Kierra Ehnes, a junior at Julesburg High School in northeastern Colorado, said the needs have only grown during the pandemic.

“Living in a small town community, the death of a teen is one that hits home hard. I remember hearing of a teen suicide in every district surrounding us, Akron, Marino, Wray,” she said, “all because kids felt like there was no end and that they didn't have a way out.”

The program starts now, with an advertising push beginning soon. 

The pandemic has taken a toll on Coloradans' mental health, according to the new Colorado Health Access Survey. More than a third of Coloradans over 16 said their mental health was negatively affected by COVID-19. That included more than half of young adults. Nearly a quarter said they had at least a week of poor mental health in the past month, according to the survey of more than 10,000 Coloradans for the Colorado Health Institute.

Children's Hospital Colorado declared a pediatric mental health emergency in May as suicide attempts and psychiatric help calls for children spiked. 

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat from Commerce City, said it’s important that the counseling is free and doesn't require insurance. 

“This is revolutionary. If we want to reduce barriers to care, we have just reduced many of them,” she said. “It does not matter if you have insurance access. It does not matter if you have money. What does matter is you get to a phone or a computer,” to access the new services.

“Young people told us that they were struggling with anxiety, depression, and other behavioral health needs,” said Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera.

Colorado is believed to be the only state with a program providing free therapy sessions for youth, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

“It's clear that our kids need help,” said Sen. Rob Woodward, a Republican from Loveland, who was a prime sponsor of the legislation to create the program. “We heard heart-wrenching stories from our youth during committee (hearings). It became crystal clear that we needed to connect them with licensed providers for free counseling sessions.”

During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill for the state’s Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) to create a temporary mental health services program to provide three free mental health sessions with a licensed provider. Providers will be paid a competitive rate for their services.

OBH is also required to launch a public awareness campaign. It’ll include digital ads on platforms like TikTok and Snapchat and outreach to schools and youth groups. It aims to reach young people statewide and target priority populations, including Black, Latinx and LGBTQ+ Coloradans. The agency got feedback from young Coloradans about the campaign and new website and they helped choose the I Matter program’s name.

Paid ads launch around November 1st. 

The OBH is required to report back to the legislature about the number of youth who got services and services provided by June of next year. 

Funding currently expires June 20, 2022, but Rep. Jenet said she thinks the needs of youth in Colorado will necessitate the program’s continuation. 

“It was intended to be a one-time program. Now I'll tell you a secret, if you promise not to tell anybody, I've already pulled a bill to make this an ongoing program,” Jenet said. “I think this is something that we need ongoing in Colorado.”

The agency is now recruiting therapists, said Liz Owens, its Director of Policy and Communications. She said 32 therapists have been hired and it's looking to hire many more. The program now has appointment slots available to young people. 

“We are working every day to add clinicians to this,” Owens said.

To begin, the young person would take a confidential survey. Then the program will match them with a clinician who can best support them. No matter the responses, they’re eligible for three free counseling sessions. If the child is 11 or younger, a parent or guardian would have to fill out the survey.

Owens said the agency will assess how to handle young people who may need more than three sessions. “We kind of want to see what the initial initial need is here, but we will be assessing pretty quickly whether we feel like the funding will allow us to pay for more than three sessions,” she said.

Rep. Jenet said her goal is for the program to have a broad impact to “in some way, shape or form, touch every kid in Colorado.” With the allotted funding, the state projects it can serve more than 10,000 youth, depending on demand and availability of therapists.

“Ultimately we want to try to get every kid who is interested able to be able to access that,” she said.
High school student Kierra Ehnes said she thinks demand for the services will be high. She described how the pandemic scrambled the lives of her and her classmates. “The COVID pandemic made them feel alone and isolated,” she said. Ehnes thanked state officials for their efforts. “You are making a huge impact in the life of many. And for that, I could not be more grateful.”