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Reflections on Funding Youth Mental Health Programming in Northern Colorado

Tags: Regional Partnerships

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The Successes and Challenges of Funding Mental Health Professionals in Northern Colorado

By Ulises Flores

Since 2018, El Pomar Foundation’s North Regional Council has focused its funding on improving mental health outcomes for students in Larimer and Weld counties. The Council partnered with each county’s community-based behavioral health center to hire two mental health clinicians in each organization to work in the Thompson and Fort Lupton School Districts. As these grants conclude their third year of operation, the staff has had the opportunity to reflect on everything we have learned about funding mental health support for students.

Importantly, we learned that the unmet need for mental health services in Colorado is fueled by a shortage of mental health care professionals. Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 31% of Colorado’s mental health needs are being met, in part due to the workforce shortage[i]. These shortages are amplified in rural communities.

While this is a critical need, we now better understand the challenges with funding staff. Although there is a workforce shortage and increasing the number of licensed professionals is of value, it is difficult to sustain. It is typical in the mental health space for professionals to follow funding and, once funding ends, for those workers to find other work. This can lead to a disruption of care for students and greater challenges for them in the future. Therefore, funders wishing to improve mental health outcomes should start with the end goals in mind and consider the potential impacts of when their funding ends.

This has all reinforced the critical point that different communities require different approaches to effectively improve the availability and quality of mental health care. In El Pomar’s North Region, we started this work with the vision of running the same program in two separate counties, in different school districts, through distinct community based behavioral health centers. Ultimately, the Council realized it needed to offer different types of support to its grant partners to address the unique challenges each program faced. As is broadly the case within the mission of the Regional Partnerships program, the best solutions are unique to the particular circumstances in which they are deployed. It was a valuable lesson for our North Council and the staff to recognize that a successful model in one community may not, in fact, be the most effective model in another. 

In conclusion, the North Regional staff have learned that youth mental health is an enormous undertaking. Combatting the crisis takes more than just talent and resources. It takes strategy, diligence, teamwork, and intentionality. We are encouraged by the fact that this issue is not taken lightly in Colorado and is recognized by many other organizations and funders. As we step up and step into these efforts, we can help battle this crisis and support student well-being, together.