Communities That Care effort seeks youth input about mental health services

EAGLE — Rachel Hanson, a senior at Red Canyon High School, offers a blunt assessment about the effectiveness of adults trying to solve teen problems.

“Adults only look in places where they know they will get a safe answer,” Hansen said. “Adults, when they try to talk with kids, don’t reach kids who never get asked.”

Like teens through the ages, Hanson believes that adults think they know best. But if adults are dedicating themselves to provide programs to help kids, Hanson said they should spend more time finding out what kids say they need.

Therein lies a significant challenge as the Total Health Alliance — a group composed of 70 local governments, agencies and organizations — begins its efforts to address Eagle County’s mental health needs. Fueled by alarming results tallied through the annual Healthy Kids Survey, youth mental health programing and resources were identified as the first priority for new services. Upon the recommendation of its Mental Health Advisory Committee, the Eagle County commissioners have allocated $400,000 to fund six new mental health counselors for local schools.

Hanson agrees that this is a great first step. Now, she is focused on what happens next, as are a lot of local adults.

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Youth voices

As well-intentioned as it may be, reaching out to get a “youth perspective” on an issue can be a flawed exercise. Youth experience is as varied as human experience.

“It’s like we are kids, we are not people,” Hanson said.

Hansen is doing her part to change that paradigm as a participant in an outreach effort headed up by Communities That Care.

Since 2016, Eagle County Public Health has partnered with the Eagle River Youth Coalition to oversee the Communities That Care process. Based on a model from the University of Washington that has been widely implemented across the nation during the past 20-plus years, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is funding Communities That Care initiatives throughout the state with dollars from the state’s marijuana tax cash fund.

The central objective of the Communities That Care model is to help communities prevent problems before they start.

According to Eagle County Communities That Care coordinator Sandra Schroeder, the local effort’s goal is to promote the positive development of children and youth and to prevent adolescent risk behaviors — specifically alcohol, marijuana and other drug use — and youth mental health challenges.

What do kids have to say?

Mandy Ivanov, Eagle County Public Health and Environment Health promotion coordinator and schools liaison, said Communities that Care has launched a recruitment effort to get a broad number of kids involved in its work.

“How many of our youth are being allowed to voice what they need?” Ivanov said.

She noted that traditionally, a certain type of kid is attracted to participating in adult-led committees. Stereotypically, such efforts attract high achievers who relish leadership opportunities. But the Communities That Care Outreach wants to bring more voices to the table — voices such as Hanson’s.

“I am not an honor student or class president,” Hanson said. “But I want people to listen to me.”

Hanson’s perspectives about school mental health counselors and even the Healthy Kids survey demonstrate the value of asking kids what they think.

“I think the mental health counselors are awesome, there should be more of that,” Hanson offered.

But just bringing in counselors doesn’t mean kids will talk to them, Hanson said.

“I know kids know there are counselors, but I don’t know if kids know what they can go to them for,” she said. “It’s not just school problems that they can talk about.”

Hanson said she will encourage her peers to reach out for counseling assistance, because once they are out of school, the resource won’t be as readily available.

“Kids should use this while they have it,” Hanson said.

Healthy Kids Survey

Currently, the most often cited example of youth perceptions is the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Every other year, the Eagle River Youth Coalition administers the survey to students in grades seven through 12 across local public and private schools. It’s a gauge of youth behaviors, influences and choices they make. The largest youth behavioral assessment in our community, the survey includes information on mental health, substance use, nutrition, physical activity, safety and violence, sexual behavior and more. The information gathered here in Eagle County is then compared with youth behaviors from around the state and nation.

In total, 3,001 children in Eagle County were questioned this time around. The survey is completely anonymous, with no personal identifying information and many layers of analysis by the University of Colorado to prevent misinformation.

Adults gravitate to the survey data because it includes such a large group of local kids and offers hard data about youth perceptions. The most recent results indicated serious mental health issues. For instance, 24 percent of local seventh- and eighth-graders said they had considered suicide at some point in the past year.

“Where is the voice of that 24 percent in our work?” Ivanov said. “We want to find struggling youth and recruit diverse youth to get representation.”

The next youth meeting through Communities That Care is slated for later in November, and Hanson hopes the group will continue to expand. She said youth from age 9 to 25 are participating.

“I think I am being heard,” she said. “I am being heard because I am so persistent about what I want to say.”

As adults involved in the local mental health effort reach out to kids, and as kids become involved with new programs and resources, Hanson said everyone should play by the same rules.

“You should be open and truthful about what you are looking for and what you need,” Hanson said.

That’s the only way things will get better, she noted, and the mental health climate for kids in Eagle County needs to improve.

“Because whatever people are doing now, it’s not working,” Hanson said.

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