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Student group pushing for mental health counselors in every Denver school

Social workers, school psychologists and counselors currently juggle other priorities like special needs students and college planning.

DENVER — Though Paola Gascot graduated from a charter high school in Denver last year, the DSST: Byars graduate is part of a student group pushing to have mental health counselors placed in every Denver Public School (DPS) building.

"If they had that, then there would probably be less suicidal rates and students would probably be able to focus more in school," Gascot said.

Gascot said mental health counselors are needed because some cultures don't think mental health is a serious issue.

"I feel sad all the time or I'm feeling anxiety 24/7, they're not just going to believe you or sit down with or tell you to find a therapist. They're not going to do that," Gascot said. "There's just families that have grown up with a different perspective."

Gascot is part of a student group called Our Turn. Our Turn is a national nonprofit that teaches students how to advocate for change. 

Molly O'Connor is the manager of organizing for Our Turn and said she believes the pandemic is an important time for more mental health support.

"We're in a crisis right now, but if we don't address it, a few years down the road, it's going to be even worse," O'Connor said.

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In November, Denver voters approved a mill levy override which will generate an extra $32 million in operational funds for DPS in exchange for higher property taxes.

"It's been a battle with funding over the past few years," O'Connor said.

Out of the additional funds, $3 million has been set aside to support mental health. 

RELATED: Voters on the verge of approving $1 billion of new funding for schools

O'Connor helped Gascot and other students make the push to have the district use some of that money to create a new job just for mental health. 

"Social workers, psychologists, counselors, they're doing amazing and critical work in schools, but they're not always supported to prioritize mental health," O'Connor said.

They often have other issues to deal with such as special needs, learning disabilities, schedule management and college planning. Gascot said she wants someone who can solely focus on everyone's mental health.

"They have other students that they have to work with," she said. "They can't prioritize like the whole school."

The DPS Budget Advisory Committee is expected to recommend to the school board that part of the new funding be used to start a pilot program of mental health counselors. The final decision will be made by the school board in late spring.

Gascot said she is hopeful that learning through Our Turn to advocate for a cause will actually pay off in results.

"One person speaks up and it really makes a huge change," Gascot said.

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