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Changing the State of Youth Mental Health

Tuesday, Oct 9 2018


"I’m fat."
"Why would anyone want to be my friend?"
"I’m worthless."

These were the thoughts that would race through Cora’s head as she lay awake at night, overcome with anxiety.

At age 14, Cora developed an eating disorder. By 8th grade, she was surviving on six crackers a day and weighing herself every three hours. As her parents tried desperately to find quality treatment options for their daughter, Cora continued to dramatically decline.

"Cora needed help right away, or she would die," said her mom, Caroline.

A mental health crisis

Nationwide, American children are facing a mental health crisis, with an estimated 1 in 5 youth facing a mental health disorder. Despite the staggering statistics, mental health support services for children are few and far between.

The typical journey for a struggling child often begins with a trip to the primary care doctor, but many pediatricians lack the resources and experience to diagnose or treat kids with mental health issues. Even those who are correctly diagnosed have a hard time finding quality care. Colorado ranks 48th in the nation for accessibility to pediatric mental health services.

Cora’s family knows these barriers all too well.

"We were doing everything in our power to help, but we still struggled to get our daughter the care she desperately needed," said Cora’s mother.

Adding to the confusion is a broken mental health system. There is no statewide entity to coordinate mental health care in Colorado. That means every provider and facility has different prevention, screening and treatment programs, leaving far too many families with an uncertain path forward in their attempts to get help.

Some families never break through the barriers, and their children never get the help they need. Tragically, suicide is the leading cause of death for youth ages 10-17 in Colorado.

With the help of donors, Children’s Hospital Colorado aims to radically transform the mental health landscape so kids can get the right diagnosis and receive treatment before issues escalate to a crisis. 

"It doesn’t have to be this way," said Shannon Van Deman, Vice President of Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Pediatric Mental Health Institute. "Our kids deserve access to all of the care they need."

Leading change

Children’s Colorado is committed to addressing the immediate crisis while also creating a better mental health future through broad, systemic changes. With philanthropic partners, Children’s Colorado is working to make transformative improvements to the state of pediatric mental health.

Many kids in crisis arrive at the emergency room to learn that there are long wait lists for treatment. For about a third of the year, Children’s Colorado’s inpatient unit for psychiatric emergencies operates at 100 percent capacity. With donor support, we plan to add more inpatient rooms, as well as outpatient facilities, allowing us to treat more kids and teens. In addition, there are plans to expand patient rooms, so parents can stay overnight with their children to aid in the healing process.

Not only is the hospital expanding facilities to help more kids who urgently need support today, Children’s Colorado is also building extensive partnerships to create a better system for helping kids statewide. Our team is educating and supporting primary care providers across the state on how to better identify, diagnose and treat mental health disorders. From connecting doctors in rural communities with our trained psychiatrists via telemedicine to training teachers and school counselors about mental health warning signs, Children’s Colorado wants every child to have access to the mental health services they need to thrive.

Children’s Colorado is already making this new future a reality. Last summer, thanks to a generous anonymous donor, Children’s Colorado formed Partners for Children’s Mental Health, a statewide initiative that brings together health care and policy leaders to improve access to the highest-quality mental health services for kids. The hospital is also spearheading a new statewide effort to track patient outcomes, gaps in care and best practices in pediatric mental health.

Also critical to solving the mental health crisis is clinical research. Philanthropy allows us to enhance our understanding of mental illness and identify best practices in care delivery. By studying the brain, we can better pinpoint diagnoses and develop more targeted therapies so that kids don’t have to waste time with unsuccessful treatments.

"Our kids and teens are suffering because of barriers to care. We need the support of donors to implement our bold vision to improve the mental health future for children," said Van Deman.

After struggling with her eating disorder for years, Cora was finally referred to the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Colorado. She entered a five-week treatment program, supported by her family. It wasn’t easy – many days she wanted to quit – but her caregivers never gave up on her. Two years later, Cora continues on the path to healing and courageously tells her story to raise awareness for the need for pediatric mental health funding. 

"I was shocked by how very few good mental health services there are for kids," Cora said. "We need better services. Nothing will change unless we take action."

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