‘Kids are suffering greatly:’ Area medical professionals say COVID-19 sparked a behavioral health crisis for local youth
During the 13 years he has worked as a pediatrician at Colorado Mountain Medical, Dr. Leslie Fishman has never seen anything like the current mental health crisis affecting local kids.
“This is the worst it has ever been, and it’s not even close,” said Dr. Fishman. “It’s not just the number of kids affected, but it is the seriousness of their problems. Kids are suffering greatly.”
Dr. Fishman’s experiences mirror reports throughout the state and nation. Children’s Hospital Colorado has declared a state of emergency in youth mental health — a first in the institution’s 117-year history.
“Right now, Colorado’s children uniquely need our help,” said Children’s Hospital Colorado CEO Jena Hausmann during a May 25 announcement. “It has been devastating to see suicide become the leading cause of death for Colorado’s children.”
At his Avon practice, Dr. Fishman has seen first hand the issues that prompted Children’s Hospital Colorado to make that state of emergency proclamation.
“There is just this sense of hopelessness we are seeing,” Fishman said. More of his patients are reporting difficulties eating or sleeping. More local kids are experiencing academic and social troubles.
“Kids are having a tough time leaving their homes. Kids are having trouble interacting with their families and interacting with their peers,” Fishman said. “I have seen more kids cutting themselves and I have more kids who say they are thinking about suicide. And I know from discussions with colleagues, they are seeing the same thing.”
This youth mental health crisis began with the COVID-19 crisis but its effects are outlasting the pandemic, local health professionals say.
“When people have mental health issues, just because things are getting better it doesn’t mean they get better,” Fishman said. “For way too long, the lives that children and teens were living were not the lives they expected to live. Everything they lived their lives by had been thrown out the door. There was a lot of uncertainty and there were no assurances.”
Tough in the best of times
It isn’t easy being a child or a teen in the best of circumstances. Even with a strong family structure, solid school system and supportive community, being a kid means navigating a complicated social structure. It’s not easy to weather the academic expectations, peer pressure and emotional stresses that are part of growing up. But at least those challenges are part of a “normal” childhood. Nothing about the global COVID-19 pandemic was normal.
“The stresses for kids remained the same, but the past year has added more stresses and difficulties,” said Casey Wolfington, the community behavioral health director for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
Wolfington noted that the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley had behavioral health counselors available to local schools during the past year. “Those counselors reported a greater number of students seeking services and a greater severity of the symptoms for those students,” Wolfington said.
But the increase in the number of kids reaching out for help from school-based counselors wasn’t what most concerned local medical professions.
“It is important to recognize the situation we have is many kids are in need and they are coming in at the level of crisis,” Wolfington said. “When we are at a point that kids are showing up in the emergency room, things are escalating so quickly that things are more difficult to manage.”
Getting kids the help they need prior to the crisis point is job No. 1 as the valley works to address the local youth mental health crisis. Like many aspects of addressing community-wide behavioral health, it will take a valley to get that job done.
Wolfington believes there is a paradigm shift happening in Eagle County, particularly among its youngest residents.
“I think the younger generation thinks about behavioral health like they think about exercise and blood pressure,” she said. “It’s becoming part of what is considered a normal health checkup in that generation.”
When he sees kids at his practice, Fishman routinely asks how they are feeling and then follows up if he is concerned about what he hears. Both Fishman and Wolfington urge parents to reach out for professional help any time they have concerns about their kids’ mental health.
“As parents, we try to talk ourselves out of being worried,” Wolfington said. “We get asked, ‘When do I know it’s time to get help?’ You should always be getting help before it’s time. It’s always easier to build a relationship with a clinician before you are in a state of crisis and you are not going to do any damage by connecting your kids with someone.”
“I want to tell parents if they think there are problems with their kids’ mental health, there probably are problems,” Fishman said. “If you are worried, you should probably seek help. I don’t think you are going to regret seeing a therapist if you didn’t need it, but you will regret not seeing one.”
Available and attainable
In Eagle County, the biggest obstacles associated with receiving professional behavioral health help shouldn’t prevent a family from finding a therapist. Local counseling services are both available and attainable. There is a comprehensive list of local therapists at eaglevalleybh.org that includes information about professional specialties, office locations and more. Through Olivia’s Fund, local residents can receive counseling services free of charge.
“I can’t imagine what things would be like right now if we didn’t have that capacity,” Fishman said. “If someone had cancer, they were going to the hospital and getting treated. That just wasn’t happening with mental care before.”
“It’s been a huge win for the community and I don’t know if people realize how much things have gotten better,” Fishman continued. “I am telling you from daily experience, I can give teens and kids who are suffering better options for getting better.”
Both Wolfington and Fishman said behavioral health services for the community are poised for the next big improvement with the Northstar Center proposal in Edwards. Vail Health has submitted a development application for a residential treatment facility in that midvalley community.
“This community has really been stepping up its game,” Fishman said. “That facility will really make things so much better.”
In addition to efforts designed to keep kids out of crisis with early connection to counseling services, Wolfington noted there are various community efforts aimed at bolstering youth mental health.
“We are trying to have as many ways as we can for kids to just connect — to be outside and engaging with one another. We are trying to create connection because we know that is a major indicator of resilience in youth,” Wolfington said.
She noted that organizations such as SpeakUp ReachOut offer special events and educational programs for both kids and adults. For example, youth mental health trainings conducted by SpeakUp ReachOut are aimed at giving adults the tools they need to recognize impending youth crisis.
Wolfington also tells parents that taking care of themselves is one of the best things they can do to help their kids cope with these difficult times.
“In order to support youth, we have to also support our adult population,” Wolfington said. “Youth don’t live in a vacuum. The stresses for their parents also affect them.”
Eagle Valley Behavioral Health is approaching its two-year anniversary and Wolfington believes the local COVID-19 mental health challenges would have cut much deeper if the organization hadn’t been ready to address them.
“Even though we are seeing a greater need, we are better positioned than we have ever been,” Wolfington said.
Fishman agreed, but noted the current youth mental health emergency cries out for more attention and assistance.
“Families are in a very tough situation,” Fishman said. “It’s not enough that have an ice arena or a nice ski area. We need more resources.”