Statewide program breaks down barriers for youth access to mental health services
The I Matter program provides three free counseling sessions to all Coloradans under the age of 18
While the silver linings of a global pandemic are few and far between, they do exist. And in Colorado, one such silver lining has been the influx of resources, attention and funding to mental health resources and services, especially for youth.
“I think the one shining star of COVID is that it’s really reduced the stigma of behavioral health,” said Casey Wolfington, a licensed psychologist and the senior director of community behavioral health at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. “It creates this common, shared experience and we’re much more likely to talk about an experience that we’ve had with someone.”
This year, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a bipartisan mental health bill, which dedicated $9 million to create the I Matter program, which provides Colorado youth with access to free counseling, mental health and substance use disorder services.
This $ 9 million was part of Polis and Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera administration’s Colorado Comeback roadmap — which allocated federal funds from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Fund to statewide areas of need — and also represents a wider push to address the youth mental health crisis. The program is funded and administered by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health through June 30, 2022.
The I Matter program provides up to three free counseling services for Coloradans ages 18 and younger, or 21 and younger for those receiving special education services. Youth, ages 12 and up, are able to access the online I Matter platform to take a confidential survey about their mental health and schedule sessions with a licensed behavioral health clinician. For kids under the age of 11, they’re still able to access the service, but must do so with a parent or guardian.
The state is aiming to get providers from all across the state involved in the I Matter program, with a particular emphasis on those that represent the Black, Indigenous, Latino and LGBTQ communities. Locally, in Eagle County, 13 providers from Eagle Valley Behavioral Health will be enrolled in the program.
One of the program’s biggest achievements is in its reduction of the financial barrier for mental and behavioral health services.
“Our youth have a very interesting financial barrier, because they’re actually incredibly reliant on their parents to get a lot of medical treatment, psychological treatment,” Wolfington said. “And really, what this program is trying to do is to address that financial barrier to make sure youth across Colorado are able to access at least a minimum of three sessions of behavioral health.”
Wolfington also said that the inception of the I Matter program was closely aligned with recent legislation in Colorado that reduced the age of consent from 15 to 12 for minors consenting to therapy.
“Unless there is some kind of financial support tied to that, really removing or reducing that age of consent doesn’t matter, because they have to find a way to pay for it. And, oftentimes, 12-year-olds do not have the means to support their treatment,” Wolfington said. “This, to me, is closing the loop. It allows us to say, we want to make sure that our youth don’t have any barriers to accessing treatment and that means consent barriers as well as financial barriers.”
Removing any barriers to access is vital to improving the overall mental well-being of youth, said Carrie Benway, executive director of the Hope Center Eagle River Valley.
“Removing barriers to access can connect youth to professional support prior to the need being at a crisis level. Once a situation reaches the crisis level, the clinical support is focused on de-escalation and safety,” Benway said. “Providing clinical support prior to the crisis allows youth to have the coping skills and support to hopefully prevent reaching a level of crisis.”
This program in many ways mirrors some of the programs and services already being offered to youth in Eagle County, programs that also remove this financial barrier to access. This includes Olivia’s Fund as well as the Hope Center’s school-based counseling services and mobile crisis co-response, both of which are offered to youth free of charge.
“We’ve been doing this locally through Olivia’s Fund, through the generosity of donors and Vail Health since our inception in 2019. But we’re just really excited that the state is following a similar trajectory of care,” Wolfington said. “This just enhances the amount of service that our youth can have access to.”
In enhancing the services available to youth, it also creates a more sustainable way for youth to access mental and behavioral health services. Should youth seek further coverage after the initial three free sessions with I Matter, they would still be able to apply for Olivia’s Fund or seek services through the Hope Center as well.
Meeting youth where they’re at
Another one of the program’s triumphs is that it is marketed and geared specifically toward youth, who during the COVID-19 pandemic experienced exacerbated mental health challenges.
What’s really great about the program, Wolfington said, is it’s an acknowledgment from the entire state of Colorado that “our youth have been through a lot this year with COVID, and the stresses of being a youth were pretty substantial, even pre-pandemic.”
She added that this program gives youth “specific access,” to mental health services and sends a signal that it’s for them.
“Having an entire campaign that is youth-centered, hopefully will just increase the amount of youths utilizing it,” Wolfington said. “It’s an entry point for youth; hopefully it makes it more familiar. Like the idea of therapy, I know when I was younger, could be very intimidating. But having a really brightly colored, awesome website that is engaged in youth-driven language can reduce the stigma of actually taking that next step.”
The three free sessions create a great introduction to therapy, breaking down stigmas and normalizing it, while also providing youth with valuable skills and services.
“Many individuals, in particular adolescents, benefit from shorter-term, solution-focused services that address specific, in-the-moment struggles, providing skills that can be applied to later struggles in the future,” said Teresa Haynes, clinical director of the Hope Center Eagle River Valley. “Short-term therapy can also provide adolescents with a positive first experience with therapy which will increase their likelihood in engaging in future services when needed.”
And with this, the hope is that therapy can be normalized, which all around has big benefits.
“When we target things that support anxiety or depression, we almost set up this belief that something has to be wrong in order for therapy to be useful,” Wolfington said. “But honestly, therapy helps performance all the time, regardless of what you’re struggling with or what you might not be struggling with.”
Plus, the I Matter program — and the others provided for youth by Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, the Hope Center and other local organizations — can help serve the specific needs of youth around mental and behavioral health.
“Overall, we continue to see an increase in anxiety and depression in individuals, particularly adolescents and now also an increase in suicidality and behavioral struggles in younger children,” Haynes said. “The increased number of barrier free services has been amazing in that it has allowed children, adolescents, and families to feel comfortable in recognizing and seeking support when they are not feeling OK.”
And while many of these problems existed well before the pandemic, the last 21 or so months, certainly elevated the stress levels of all youth and exacerbated the need for mental health services.
“As a clinician, I would very much say that we have been in a behavioral health crisis for a very, very long time and the fact that it took a pandemic to pay attention to it, that’s fine. Because at least now, we’re getting the financial support that we need to start to address it,” Wolfington said.
Haynes echoed this sentiment and said that “raising the level of mental health awareness and the importance of taking care of your mental health is long overdue.”
With the allotted funding, the state projected that it can serve more than 10,000 youth, depending on initial demand and available therapist capacity. Wolfington said, however, that the initial excitement and hope for the program indicate it could have a more permanent future once the initial funding runs out.
“I know the state partners are so excited about this so I anticipate that this is a program that’s going to be around for a long time, just having them want to ensure that youth can have access to services,” she said.
To learn more about the I Matter program or to take the survey and access support, visit IMattercolorado.org.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call The Hope Center of the Eagle Valley at 970-306-HOPE (4673) or Colorado Crisis Services at 844-493-8255. To find a therapist, support groups and more resources, visit EagleValleybh.org. Plus, get information about financial assistance provided via Olivia’s Fund.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.