While the silver liners of a global pandemic are rare, they do exist. And in Colorado, one of those benefits has been the influx of resources, attention, and funding for mental health resources and services, especially for young people.
“I think the one shining star of COVID is that it has really reduced the stigma around behavioral health,” said Casey Wolfington, registered psychologist and senior director of community behavioral health at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. “It creates that common and shared experience and we’re much more likely to talk about an experience we’ve had with someone.”
This year, Governor Jared Polis enacted a bipartisan mental health bill, which dedicated $ 9 million to create the I Matter program, which provides Colorado youth with free access to counseling, mental health and substance use disorders.
That $ 9 million was part of the Colorado Comeback roadmap of the Polis administration and Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera. – which has allocated federal funds from President Joe Biden’s US Rescue Fund to areas of need statewide – and also represents a larger push to address the crisis in youth mental health. The program is funded and administered by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health until June 30, 2022.
The I Matter program provides up to three free counseling services for Coloradans aged 18 and under, or 21 and under for those receiving special education services. Youth ages 12 and older can access the I Matter online platform to complete a confidential mental health survey and schedule sessions with a licensed behavioral health clinician. For children under 11, they can still access the service, but must do so with a parent or guardian.
The state aims to involve providers from across the state in the I Matter program, with a particular focus on those who represent Black, Indigenous, Latino and LGBTQ communities. Locally in Eagle County, 13 Eagle Valley Behavioral Health providers will be enrolled in the program.
One of the program’s greatest accomplishments is reducing the financial barrier for mental and behavioral health services.
“Our young people have a very interesting financial hurdle because they’re actually incredibly dependent on their parents for a lot of medical treatment, psychological treatment,” Wolfington said. “And really, what this program is trying to do is overcome that financial hurdle to make sure Colorado youth can access at least three behavioral health sessions.”
Wolfington also said the creation of the I Matter program was closely aligned with recent Colorado legislation that lowered the age of consent from 15 to 12 for minors consenting to therapy.
“Unless there’s some kind of financial support attached to it, removing or really reducing that age of consent doesn’t matter, because they have to find a way to pay for it. And, 12-year-olds often cannot afford their treatment, ”said Wolfington. “That, for me, comes full circle. This allows us to say, we want to make sure our young people don’t have barriers to accessing treatment and that means consent barriers as well as financial barriers.
Removing all barriers to access is key to improving the overall mental well-being of young people, said Carrie Benway, Executive Director of Hope Center Eagle River Valley.
“Removing barriers to access can put young people in touch with professional support before the need is at a crisis level. Once a situation reaches crisis level, clinical support is focused on de-escalation and security, ”said Benway. “Providing clinical support before a crisis allows young people to have the coping skills and support needed to hopefully avoid reaching a crisis level. “
This program mirrors in many ways some of the programs and services already available to youth in Eagle County, programs that also remove this financial barrier to access. This includes Olivia’s Fund as well as Hope Center’s school counseling services and Mobile Crisis Co-Response, both free to young people.
“We’ve been doing this locally through the Olivia Fund, thanks to the generosity of donors and Vail Health since our inception in 2019. But we’re really excited that the state is following a similar care trajectory,” Wolfington said. . “It only improves the amount of services our young people can access. “
By improving services for young people, it also creates a more sustainable way for young people to access mental and behavioral health services. If young people were looking for additional coverage after the first three free sessions with I Matter, they would still be able to apply for Olivia’s Fund or seek services through the Hope Center.
Meet young people where they are
Another of the program’s triumphs is that it is marketed and aimed specifically at young people who, during the COVID-19 pandemic, experienced exacerbated mental health issues.
What’s really great about the program, Wolfington said, is that the entire state of Colorado recognizes that “our young people have been through a lot this year with COVID, and the stress of being a youngster was pretty high, even before the pandemic. “
She added that this program gives young people “specific access” to mental health services and sends the signal that it is for them.
“Having an entire campaign focused on young people will hopefully only increase the number of young people using it,” Wolfington said. “It’s an entry point for young people; hope this will make it more familiar. Like the idea of therapy, I know when I was younger it could be very intimidating. But having a really, very colorful and awesome website that is engaged in youth-oriented language can reduce the stigma of actually taking that next step. “
The three free sessions create a great introduction to therapy, breaking stigma and normalizing it, while providing young people with valuable skills and services.
“Many people, especially adolescents, benefit from short-term, solution-oriented services that address specific challenges at the moment, providing skills that can be applied to subsequent struggles in the future,” said Teresa Haynes, clinical director of the Hope Center Eagle River Valley. “Short-term therapy can also provide adolescents with a positive first experience of therapy, which will increase their likelihood of engaging in future services when needed. “
And with that, the hope is that the therapy can be normalized, which has great benefits.
“When we target things that support anxiety or depression, we almost have this belief that something is wrong for therapy to be helpful,” Wolfington said. “But honestly, therapy helps with performance all the time, no matter what you’re struggling with or maybe not struggling. “
Additionally, the I Matter program – and others offered to young people by Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, the Hope Center, and other local organizations – can help meet the specific mental and behavioral health needs of young people.
“Overall, we continue to see an increase in anxiety and depression in individuals, especially adolescents, and now also an increase in suicidality and behavioral struggles in young children,” said Haynes. . “The increase in barrier-free services has been amazing in that it has made children, youth and families feel comfortable recognizing and seeking support when they are not feeling well. . “
And while many of these issues existed long before the pandemic, the past 21 months or so have certainly raised stress levels for all young people and exacerbated the need for mental health services.
“As a clinician I would say very well that we’ve been in a behavioral health crisis for a long, long time and the fact that it took a pandemic to pay attention to it is okay. Because at least now we’re getting the financial support we need to start fixing it, ”Wolfington said.
Haynes echoed this sentiment and said that “raising awareness of mental health and the importance of taking care of your mental health is long overdue.”
With the funding allocated, the state has predicted that it can serve more than 10,000 young people, depending on initial demand and the capacity of available therapists. Wolfington said, however, that initial enthusiasm and hope for the program indicates that it may have a more permanent future once the initial funding runs out.
“I know the state partners are so excited about this, so I predict this is a program that is going to be around for a long time, just because they want to make sure young people can have it. access to services, ”she said.
To learn more about the I Matter program or to complete the survey and access support, visit IMattercolorado.org.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the Hope Center of the Eagle Valley at 970-306-HOPE (4673) or Colorado Crisis Services at 844-493-8255. To find a therapist, support groups, and more resources, visit EagleValleybh.org. Plus, get information on financial assistance provided through Olivia’s Fund.
Journalist Ali Longwell can be reached at [email protected]