By Annika Schmidt
Amid concerns about youth mental health, students in the Pikes Peak area have access to resources in schools that aim to provide support both inside and outside the classroom.
Mental health resources in some areas of El Paso County have expanded to meet the growing demand for children and teens receiving support at school.
The Centers for Disease Control calls mental health among youth a growing problem, with one in three college students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019.
in Fountain-Fort Carson District 8 schools, has seen an increase in students needing mental health services as a result of the pandemic, according to Director of Mental Health Lisa Zimprich.
The district’s “busy” staff of 50 mental health professionals, including counselors, psychologists and social workers, has grown in recent years, with more available to middle and high school students.
“We’ve added probably five or six mental health positions in the last couple of years just so we can stay proactive with the services we provide,” Zimprich said. These professionals provide mental health support at every level, and the district is working with community partners, including the military, to bring therapists into schools.
During the past school year, elementary school students in District 8 needed support the most for emotional regulation, and middle school students for social interactions and anxiety. Zimprich also said there has been a significant increase in high school students needing help with anxiety and feelings of depression.
In the past few years, strategies have been introduced to help students with emotional regulation and challenging life events. Signs of Suicide and Sources of Strength are two prevention efforts programs in District 8 schools.
Zimprich cited wait times for mental health services as an area of improvement they are addressing by working with an outside agency starting this school year. Staff and parents will be connected to comprehensive mental health services based on insurance and preferences.
“Our hope is that students, families and staff will be able to access care more quickly than we’ve seen in recent years,” Zimprich said. “Over the last few years we have seen a significant increase in waiting lists and the length of time people are waiting to receive psychiatric services.”
Academic District 20 implemented its social emotional learning programs around 2015 after what spokeswoman Alison Cortez called a “suicide cluster,” when about a dozen students took their own lives during the school year, Cortez wrote in an email.
SEL programming for El Paso County’s largest district includes Riding the Waves to teach students in grades K-5 healthy ways to cope with stress, how to ask for help and how to recognize when others may need support . Grades 6-12 have Signs of Suicidality to recognize and respond to serious depression or suicidality in self or others and Sources of Strength, a program that supports students on social media with an emphasis on positive messaging.
RULER is also a system developed by Yale for all grade levels that teaches students how to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate emotions. Maureen Lang, executive director of instructional services for District 20, was honored in June for her work implementing a systems approach to SEL.
“The programs … started small, but now they are all very robust and throughout our area. We were very fortunate that when the pandemic hit, we already had solid support,” Cortes said.
Cortez said the long-established Parenting Academies have shifted focus over the past five years to more social, emotional and mental health care.
In recent years, virtual counseling services have been made available to students in response to the pandemic, and a summer counseling program was introduced in 2021.
Quarter 49 has mental health professionals at both the school and district levels to meet the mental health needs of its approximately 25,000 students, according to Jason White, the district’s community care coordinator.
District 49’s tiered support systems are comprehensive, White said, allowing schools to address more than one concern for an individual student. White said there may be correlations between poor mental health and other academic, behavioral or emotional struggles. If those correlations are made, White said there are multiple branches of support to help students.
Support from schools is driven by student data. White gave the example that if a student is struggling with mental health, professionals can monitor test results and respond accordingly. White said the district is working to make documentation more consistent and accessible across District 49 so that when students move between schools, existing records and care plans can be followed.
Capturing Kids Hearts is a character-based curriculum that provides a framework for student interaction in District 49 schools. White said school staff are proactive in instilling a sense of purpose in students about their academic endeavors and fostering connections between students and peers, faculty and administrators.
“The most important thing we do for student mental health is building and connecting with students,” White said. “Without it, any of our tactics would have been worse. Relationships come first.”
White said his team has placed a special focus on violence risk and suicide risk prevention, developing a process with their safety and security team to intervene and connect students with the appropriate and qualified individuals.
“We also partner with community agencies and identify ways to cut red tape to connect students or families with help,” White said, including referrals to therapy and other resources. “The directory is too numerous to list.”
White acknowledged the impact of the pandemic, sharing that the district’s youngest students need more support with social expectations and following guidelines in part because of limited socialization during pandemic-related closures.
However, White said social media has been another important factor in student mental health in recent years. “There is a lot of value that students place on themselves from external assessment,” he said.
Harrison District 2 has made several recent changes to strengthen its support for student mental health, most recently partnering with Beacon Options Mental Health to create the Family Support Program, a resource hotline.
Parents and caregivers who call 1-888-339-1025 can receive help from a trained professional for their Harrison student’s emotional, behavioral, health, social, educational and household needs.
This upcoming school year, District 2 is also adding a new department to all schools that will oversee its SEL curriculum and new student success centers that were piloted last school year. Each school will also have a full-time social worker in addition to psychologists and counselors.
The district is partnering with the Mindfulness and Positivity Project to help students and staff adopt mindfulness in the classroom and beyond. They have connections with local therapists to support both students and parents.
The district uses the Colorado Crisis Services call and text line to connect students with community resources, including Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention, NAMI Colorado and Inside Out Youth Services.
Widefield District 3 has also seen a growing demand for mental health, despite having comprehensive programming for all grade levels and proactively addressing the pre-pandemic need for additional mental health staff.
“We’re seeing a growing need for mental health support,” said Lisa Humbird, executive director of District 3’s Department of Special Education Services.
District 3 schools have full-time social workers in nearly all of their schools and full-time counselors based on the number of students enrolled in each school.
The district has social-emotional learning opportunities for students of all ages, including 18-21 year olds in post-secondary education programs.
The student programs aim to provide a variety of mental health supports, including anger management, emotional identification, suicide prevention, as well as more targeted guidance with assignments or friendship groups, Humbard said.
For students to receive professional mental health support, each school in the district has its own referral process. Mental health teams hold weekly meetings to identify trends, which helps guide education staff training throughout the school year.
Colorado Springs Area 11 has community resources for a variety of mental health services, including crisis support, grief recovery, sobriety support and addiction recovery, listed on its website.
On-site counselors provide responsive services for individual or group counseling, crisis management and dropout prevention, according to the website.
Inside Mitchell High School is a primary Peak Vista health facility offering health services, including mental health services such as on-site behavioral health providers and an opportunity to address psychological issues and life stressors.
The center serves the students, staff and families of not only Mitchell High School, but also other area schools and neighborhood residents.
The district is also in the process of hiring a new executive director to oversee the department, which coordinates mental health resources for students, according to a district spokesperson.