Colorado Seeking Annual Mental Health Check for Children in School

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A new bill passing through the Colorado legislature would create an annual mental health assessment program for sixth through twelfth-graders. Proponents hope it will help identify and address student mental health concerns early.

“By promoting early intervention among youth in schools who need behavioral health services and supports, our state can continue to make progress in achieving better behavioral health outcomes for young people,” Wivine Ngongo, president of the Colorado Public Health Association, testified at a recent hearing on the bill.

The bill allows parents to opt their child out of the assessments; however, children aged 12 and older can override their parents and opt back in, without the parents’ knowledge. Critics say it contravenes existing Colorado law and undermines parental rights.

“Nurses at schools aren’t allowed to give children ibuprofen for headaches, yet we should allow mental health assessments to take place on school grounds, and even without parental consent?” testified Samantha Wild, vice-chair of Moms for Liberty El Paso County.

The bill, House Bill 23-1003, was introduced to Colorado’s General Assembly on Jan. 9 by state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Sen. Lisa Cutter, both democrats. It has passed through one committee and is now under consideration by the Appropriations Committee.

Addressing Mental Health

Nearly 40 percent of Colorado high school students said they felt “sad or hopeless,” and 7 percent of youth have attempted suicide, according to a Healthy Kids Colorado report released in Sep. 2022 by Colorado Behavior Health Administration (BHA).

“The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a surge in behavioral health concerns nationwide resulting from social isolation, essential worker burnout, mass loss of life, disruption to standard mental health services, loss of traditional support services and systems such as those available through schools, restricted access to in-person assistance, and more,” the report stated.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Edgar James, front center, battles with tears as he hugs his daughter, Mia, front right, and his wife, Olga Aguirre, front left, as they are reunited outside Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo., on Nov. 19, 2021. (Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado via AP)

Colorado had the 7th highest “suicide-associated death rate” in the nation in 2020, the report said.

“The BHA recognizes that access and availability to mental health providers is a barrier to young people getting the care they need,” BHA stated in an email to The Epoch Times.

It added that through a 2021 bill, Colorado had invested $9 million of federal stimulus funding for programs and training to help address the rising mental health crisis in Colorado.

In the same year, other bills established a mental health rapid response program for youth called IMATTER, a program managed by BHA that allows Colorado youth up to six free therapy sessions with a participating licensed therapist.

But, the ability to identify youth who are struggling with a possible mental health crisis remained a concern, which is addressed by HB23-1003, some lawmakers say.

School Mental Health Assessment

If passed, HB 23-1003 will allow schools to decide if they want grades six through 12 to participate in the yearly mental health screening, defined as a “brief, structured, questionnaire completed by a participating student.”

The questionnaire would be administered by a “screener,” a term the bill defines as “the entity selected by the department pursuant to this part to conduct the mental health assessment,” referring to the Department of Public Health and Environment.

Upon review, if the screener thinks the student “may be suffering from a mental or emotional health concern … the screener shall notify the student’s parent within forty-eight hours … and provide the student’s parents with information on resources and services provided through IMATTER.”

But, a provision in the bill allows for a student to be referred to IMATTER directly, without the parents’ knowledge or consent, if the parent has already opted their child out of the screening, but the child opted back in.

Support For and Against

Ngongo, who provided testimony in support of the bill in front of the House Committee on Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services on Feb. 7, said , HB23-1003 has “the potential to increase the proportion of children with mental health challenges who get access to treatment.”

She added that it aligns with federal public health priorities through Healthy People 2030.

Wild, who testified against the bill, said, “Passing this bill takes away parental rights. Parental rights are fundamental rights and are not limited to education, medical care, and moral upbringing.

“Children aged 12-18 do not have fully developed brains to consent to what is going on with their own medical care, and mental health assessments is a form of medical care. Education and Medical Care should never mix.”

Angela Kimball, the senior vice president of advocacy and public policy for Inseparable.Us, said half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24.

“Like many other health conditions, when signs and symptoms are identified early and addressed appropriately, it’s possible to get young lives back on track,” Kimball said.

“An assessment is not a diagnosis but an opportunity to spot students who may be at risk.”

Los Angeles school buses
Los Angeles school buses School buses line up in Los Angeles on Aug. 30, 2021. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

An LGBTQ+ advocacy network, Envision: You, added its support for the bill. “LGBTQ+ youth in Colorado are at greater risk of mental health concerns than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts and often experience disparities in accessing mental services as well,” the group stated.

“House Bill 23-1003 would allow initial access to mental health assessment services for LGBTQ+ youth that they may not otherwise receive.”

Colorado educator and parent, Diana Bara, hit back against the bill, “It not only undermines the relationship between parents and teachers, it also violates a parent’s right to be consulted about the welfare of a minor child, per Colorado law. This bill puts that right into the hands of strangers and the government who do not know what is best for our children.”

Bara said HB23-1003 contravenes existing Colorado laws, 2-4-401(6)) and (19-4- 103, and the government or school administrators don’t have the right to “obstruct” parental obligation.

“The first defines a minor as a person who has not attained the age of 21. It states that parents are liable for their child’s action until they reach the age of majority. This includes decisions about his or her body and mental health,” she said.

“The second law defines a ‘parent and child relationship’ as a legal relationship existing between a child and his/her natural or adoptive parents. Within this relationship, there are rights, privileges, duties, and obligations specified by law. Parents have the legal right to be consulted about their child’s mental health.”

Carolyn Martin, director of government relations for Christian Home Educators of Colorado told The Epoch Times that she opposes HB23-1003 because, “The fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is the cornerstone of home education freedom.

“Every time this fundamental right is infringed, it threatens a parent’s right to educate their children outside the government school system. HB23-1003 builds upon the state of Colorado’s intrusion into the family by giving children the ability to circumvent a decision made by their parents who know them best.”

The House Committee on Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services passed the motion on Feb. 7, in a 7–4 vote.

Representatives Amabile, English, Gonzales-Gutierez, Jodeh, Story, Young, and Michelson Jenet—all Democrats—voted for the bill, while Republican Representatives Bradfield, Bradley, and Holtof, were joined by Democratic Rep. Hamrick in opposition.

The bill has moved to the Appropriations Committee.

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