Stress, social media, pandemic are taking a heavy toll on Colorado kids’ mental health, according to annual report

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Kids stay cool at a splash pad on the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.

Colorado children's well-being took a hit during the pandemic while children and youth continue to struggle significantly with mental health issues, according to a new report. 

The Kids Count in Colorado data report tracks child well-being at state and county levels every year, and the 2023 numbers were released Tuesday. The Colorado Children’s Campaign pulls together wide-ranging data from many different sources to get a yearly snapshot of the education, health, financial stability and general well-being of the state’s children. Here are some of the big issues identified in the report. 

Mental health struggles in youth continue to sky-rocket

Every data point possible shows increases in Colorado youth struggling mentally while access to resources is limited, according to the report. Increasing numbers of Colorado high school students are reporting rising levels of persistent sadness and hopelessness.  The share of Coloradans age 18 and younger who reported eight or more days of poor mental health in the past 30 days more than doubled in just six years.

Take emergency room visits for mental health reasons. In children, they increased by 140 percent between 2016 and 2021. For adults — just 23 percent. Visits for self-harm among Colorado children more than tripled. 

“More young Coloradans have been letting us know they are struggling with their mental health,” said Sarah Barnes, senior director of policy at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Why is this happening? Research and CPR’s series “Teens Under Stress” report these main factors.

  • Rising pressure to succeed academically;
  • Increased use of social media;
  • Fewer young people getting adequate sleep;
  • Broader societal issues such as economic struggles, climate change and increasing gun violence.

“In our generation, a lot of people are really isolated,” one student in the data report noted. “Many of us don’t have good support systems, or even just a few people who truly know us… Though I have a few really solid connections, it’s been a real struggle for me to find.”

The student spoke of “drowning in all the pressure” with too many activities and stressors. 

The pandemic accelerated the mental health crisis, with half of youth reporting experiencing emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in their home, parents losing jobs, or youth experiencing hunger. Students of color and LGBTQ+ students reported experiencing these challenges at higher rates than white and heterosexual youth.

Financial stability is one of the basic building blocks of mental health for parents and children. In Colorado, it’s uneven. 

On the surface, Colorado scores high when it comes to economic prosperity for children. Colorado’s child poverty rate of 12 percent in 2021 was below the national average of 17 percent. It was largely unchanged from the last time the data was collected in 2019. 

Still, Colorado’s economic prosperity is lopsided. Children in rural communities in the southern part of the state are the most vulnerable to financial stress. Costilla County has the highest child poverty rate at 36 percent, followed by Saguache at 35 percent and Huerfano at 32 percent. By contrast, Douglas County has the lowest rate at 3 percent. 

Following the trend across the U.S., children of color are more likely to experience poverty in Colorado. Between 2017 and 2021, the state’s American Indian and Black children were, on average, three times as likely to experience poverty compared to white children. Meanwhile, Latino children were twice as likely as white children to suffer from poverty. 

“These disparities are unacceptable and Colorado must prioritize efforts to ensure that families of all races are able to access the economic opportunities they need to meet their basic needs and to thrive,” Barnes said during a webinar on Tuesday. 

The economic shocks brought about by the pandemic and the ensuing inflation are taking a toll on child welfare in Colorado.

Here are two key takeaways from the report: 

  • As of October 2022, 17 percent of households reported their children were not eating enough because food is unaffordable. 
  • As of November 2022, 44 percent of households reported difficulty paying for expenses including food, housing and health care, up from 32 percent in September of 2020. 

The pandemic also exacerbated the state’s affordable housing crunch, according to the report. In 2021, nearly one-third of Colorado kids are in families that are housing-cost burdened, meaning the household spends more than 30 percent of monthly income on rent or a mortgage. The picture is far worse for children in low-income households, with 70 percent living in housing-cost burdened homes. 

“The good news is that economic opportunity is shaped by policy choices,” Barnes said. 

Pandemic-era programs, in particular the expanded Child Tax Credit, were effective at lifting children out of poverty, the report found. Early research suggests the child tax credit was associated with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety among low-income adults with children, showing the crucial link between economic security and mental health. 

Here are the reports key economic policy prescriptions to help Colorado families thrive: 

  • Public investment in income support including guaranteed income and tax credits for low-income households. 
  • Policies that promote housing stability such as preventing families from being evicted from their homes and ensuring adequate access to rental assistance. 

Children report feeling unsafe and not accepted. The report lists recommendations to cope with stress.

Another student in the report said people at their school don’t feel safe or comfortable being themselves.

“No one else is out as gay at my school. I don’t know who to date or hang out with so I don’t feel alone. I feel like I don’t have any community or hope of finding love... There are bullies and it’s worse on social media.”

The student suggested one solution might be a group at school where queer students can meet one another.

The number of Colorado youth who died by suicide nearly doubled between 2010 and 2021. In 2021, one in six Colorado high school students reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. In 2022, however, the number of teens who died by suicide declined sharply for the first time in several years, but the report did offer a reason for the drop.  The southwestern corner of the state had the highest youth suicide rate while the rural-resort counties had the least.

The report identified several solutions, including:

  • Effective coping and stress management skills;
  • Adequate sleep (only a quarter of high school students reported sleeping eight or more hours per night); 
  • Support from friends and family (82 percent said they could ask parent or guardian for help with a person problem);
  • Increased parental monitoring;
  •  More opportunities to feel connected (while 65 percent said they felt like they belong at school, just over a third said they enjoyed being at school most or all of the time).

“Students [can be] put under a lot of pressure [with the amount of work given to students] can make them stay up all night studying for last minute tests or projects,” reported one student. The student said schools need to understand that they are human and the amount of academic work and pressure keeps them from being healthy.

Schools need more mental health providers. Almost half of Colorado school districts have no licensed school psychologists

While the state has made strides in offering more social and emotional support in classrooms and up to six free therapy sessions with the I Matter program, there is a troubling shortage of mental health professionals at school.

In the first-of-its-kind analysis of statewide data, the ratio of public-school students to licensed school psychologists last year was 928:1 – nearly double the 500:1 ratio recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists. For school social workers, Colorado was nearly quadruple the recommended ratio. 

Students in rural districts in particular have no specialists to turn to. For example, 113 of Colorado’s 178 school districts had no licensed school psychologists employed by the district. A similar number of districts had no school social workers. And 35 school districts had no school counselor. Forty-six of Colorado’s 64 counties had no practicing child or adolescent psychiatrist.

While students have repeatedly pointed to excess academic and extracurricular expectations as a significant source of stress, there doesn’t appear to be widespread systemic change to address this.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers focus their efforts on getting more mental health support to students in school. They passed several bills this year, including to increase school-based prevention services and hire more mental health staff.

The report highlights several programs that help youth: The Second Wind Fund which has a free mental health therapy program; the Partnership for Community Action which focuses on building community among rural queer and gender-diverse people; and YAASPA, a nonprofit that empowers youth of color.

“Research indicates that youth of color build confidence in their academic and career decisions when they understand their identities,” said the report.

The report also has a number of recommendations, including implementing universal mental health screenings in school and focusing more on relationship building among peers in school.

Other school-related findings

In the 2021-2022 school year, more than one-third of Colorado students (36 percent) were chronically absent, a sharp rise from 26 percent the previous year. Rates ranged from fewer than 5 percent of students in the Idalia and Vilas school districts (in Yuma and Las Animas counties, respectively) to 70 percent of students in Costilla County’s Centennial school district.

And for the state’s youngest children, there are only enough preschools, family child-care homes and licensed child-care centers to serve just two-thirds of children estimated to need care. A survey last year showed 61 percent of programs reported a staffing shortage. Wages are critically low for child care educators with the median at $30,350.

  • About 12,000 fewer children are without health coverage but post-pandemic policy changes mean many children are likely to lose their coverage in the year ahead.
  • The number of children killed by guns continues to rise. In Colorado, 83 Colorado kids and teens ages 19 and under were killed by guns—the highest number on record in at least 20 years and more than double the number of kids killed by guns in 2000.
  • The use of some substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, has dropped in recent years, while the use of prescription pain medication without a prescription and the number of deaths due to accidental overdose, are stagnant or increasing.