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Office of Behavioral Health offering free mental health services to Colorado youth

The temporary program, I Matter, offers up to 3 free online or in-person therapy sessions. The program is funded until the end of June next year.

DENVER — For months, local mental health leaders have working to provide more access to mental health services and declaring it an emergency for kids throughout 2021

"We know we had a youth mental health crisis in our state before the pandemic and really wanted to help youth out and help them immediately," said Liz Owens, the Co-Deputy Director of Programs at the Office of Behavioral Health, which is under the Colorado Department of Human Services.

According to the Colorado Health Institute's 2021 Colorado Health Access Survey, which surveyed more than 10,000 households, 32.9% of Coloradans 16 to 18 years old reported declining mental health because of the pandemic. 

23.2% of kids 11 to 18 said they would likely need behavioral health services in the next year. 

One of the biggest barriers to behavioral health care, Owens says, is the cost. 

An example of that is that the Colorado Health Institute's survey found that 70% of households reported that they did not think their health insurance would cover mental health care services, which is nearly 17% higher than in 2019. 

In late October, the Office of Behavioral Health launched the website 'I Matter' which gives Colorado youth three free therapy sessions either online or in person, but they have the funding to provide more, depending on demand according to Owens. 

Credit: FILE

"So what I matter does is it offers any youth in our state the ability to sign up for three free mental health sessions, and this is immediate. The session availability is within the next two weeks," she said, adding that nearly 80 clinicians take part in the program. "Most of the therapists are providing services online, so it's primarily a telehealth program. We have a few who are providing in-person and that's something we're working to continue to develop. But basically, it's a forty-minute therapy session, the first session, you know, some intake questions, getting to know each other a little bit and then developing what they want to work on together."

The program stems from Colorado House Bill 21-1258 which established the temporary program, $9 million was dedicated to I Matter. 

The program however is temporary and funded until June 30, 2022. 

So far, they've had about 1,500 sessions scheduled, with around 300 youth using at least one session, of which some have done three already. 

But Owens says they have much more room for youth to join the program. 

"We have the ability to serve more youth than we're serving right now. So we have more than 200 sessions still available each week and we're still trying to add clinicians. And so we're really working on adding Spanish-speaking clinicians, adding clinicians who can provide services in person and just to continue to develop our database because we want to be able to meet every specialty that youth has," she said. 

The program she says is critically important, especially when it's able to be free, breaking the barrier of cost. 

Credit: Mat Gaskins
Liz Owens with the Office of Behavioral Health.

"We've heard from our our partners in schools at the Colorado Department of Education that more resources are needed for youth. We've heard from youth themselves, from parents, people really across the state. So it is absolutely critical right now and we really have a challenge here. We want to serve as many kids as possible. And Colorado is the only state in the nation that has a program like this where we can serve any youth with three free therapy sessions," she said. 

In January, they plan to complete a legislative report to present to state lawmakers to show the progress of how the program is going. 

"So no plans right now for continuation of the program, but it's certainly being discussed by legislators and by the Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force," she said. "I think we are looking to learn as much as we can from this program. The state of Colorado is doing behavioral health reform right now. So we really see this as an opportunity like how does this work? We're able to schedule youth immediately and what sort of impact does that have? And I think it will inform the transformation of our system."

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