Based on data that shows more than one-third of calls responded to in 2018 by Douglas County’s Community Response Teams — which pair a law enforcement officer with a mental health clinician — were youths between 5 and 19 years old, county commissioners have approved funding to create a unit to work exclusively with young people and schools in the county.
State behavioral health officials say they do not know of any other similar co-responder program in Colorado dedicated solely to youth.
Douglas County’s three CRT units are the result of a project of the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative,a unique partnership of more than 40 public, private and faith-based entities that has been working since 2014 to identify gaps in the county’s mental health resources and find ways to fill them.
CRTs, also known as co-responder teams, provide a range of services, including directly admitting people in crisis to a facility. But, most often, people are treated, stabilized, provided with resources and allowed to stay in their home. The county created the teams, based on a model in Colorado Springs, to prevent people in crisis from going to jail or the emergency room if mental health treatment was what they truly needed.
The county began piloting the first CRT in May 2017. It added a second in December 2017. One team is based in Castle Rock and works with Castle Rock police, and the other covers unincorporated Douglas County, working with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. The county is planning to add a third this summer, although it is still determining its jurisdiction.
Of the 1,111 individuals helped by CRTs in 2018, the data shows approximately 37 percent were between 5 and 19 years old, according to a CRT annual report. That age population comprised the largest segment of any age group. Calls ranged from disputes between children and parents to welfare checks on youths who were suicidal
Deputy County Manager Barbara Drake said this likely reaffirms mental health conditions emerge in adolescence, and it shows a need for schools, law enforcement and mental health professionals to unite.
“It just led us to believe that we needed to work more closely with the schools and with, specifically, the school resource officers to look at how we can connect what is happening in school, what is happening at home, what is happening out in the community, for these young people,” said Drake, who helped spearhead the Mental Health Initiative’s creation. “We need to connect those dots.”
‘Most stressed generation’
The commissioners’ unanimous decision came on May 28 following community outcry for solutions to school safety and mental health support following the May 7 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch. They approved $331,250 for a unit that will work in the school system and the community to provide students mental health and substance-use support. The money was part of a $13.3 million financial offer from commissioners to local schools.
“I’d like to make sure that the CRT team is getting the information out,” said Commissioner Lora Thomas while speaking with Colorado Community Media the day after the board approved the funds.
Reaction to the $13.3 million proposal varied, with some community members applauding it while others were skeptical of other aspects of the plan. The Douglas County School District’s Board of Education urged commissioners to take more time over its proposal.
All the debate overshadowed the CRT approval, Thomas felt.
Jason Williams, clinical director of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said numerous factors likely contribute to why the CRT sees so many young people, but high-stress among children and poor access to mental health services are two of the most significant.
He cited a report from the American Psychological Association that examined Generation Z, an age group that witnessed 9/11, has grown up in a world with mass shootings, active shooter drills and, according to the study, is most likley to report poor mental health.
“A lot of our kids are getting to crisis points,” he said. “They are the most stressed generation on the planet right now.”
Williams also pointed to the alarming youth suicide rates in Colorado, a leading cause of death for age groups under 24. Between 2015 and 2017 in Colorado, 222 people died by suicide between the ages of 10 and 18, according to a report from the Colorado Office of the Attorney General.
He applauded the county’s decision to add a youth-focused CRT.
“It’s a phenomenal resource,” Williams said. “I’m really super happy to hear that those teams exist.”
Step in the right direction
Exactly what the youth CRT will look like, and when it will start, is unclear.
But Beverly Kingston, director of The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado-Boulder, also called it a step in the right direction.
The center has long recommended the creation of interagency social support teams to work with youths on their mental health needs. She wasn’t familiar with the details of how Douglas County’s youth CRT would work, but believes it “sounds like a good strategy” based on research recommendations.
Kingston envisions a future with a well-funded infrastructure that focuses as much on prevention as it does crisis response, including emotional education beginning at a young age and school-based teams that listen to students while working to create a positive and safe environment.
In the past 20 years, Kingston said law enforcement has learned a substantial amount about responding to crisis events and is prepared to handle them. Less money and attention has been given to prevention.
“The key to stopping these shootings is to put what we know works to prevent violence in place,” she said. “I think we haven’t consistently been doing that across the nation and we can do a better job, and so that’s what we need to collectively understand.”
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