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Takeaways from the Central Peaks Regional Council’s Youth Mental Health Panel

By Phoenix Chang Roper and Emily Wagner

In October, the Central Peaks Regional Council met with a panel of four youth mental health experts from each county in the region—Chaffee, Custer, Fremont and Park—with expertise in numerous types of services. Panelists discussed the most pressing issues in the region, how organizations are addressing these issues and gaps in funding and services. The goal of the panel was to inform council members where funding could make the largest impact in their focus area of youth mental health and resiliency.

One recurring theme of the discussion was isolation and connection. Kim Philia of Colorado Family Guidance noted in her organization’s survey of Custer County students, around 80 percent who filled out the survey reported feelings of isolation and loneliness. Experts from Chaffee and Fremont County echoed concerns about isolation and identified LGBTQ+ students as particularly vulnerable. Panelists identified many factors that contribute to increased feelings of loneliness, including the rise of social media, bullying and physical isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The question raised repeatedly was: How do we rebuild a sense of connection?

Those working in traditional behavioral health services also identified coordination and communication between different service providers as one of the biggest challenges. However, Brian Turner of Solvista Health, the primary behavioral health provider in the Central Peaks region, emphasized the importance of funding preventative measures in addition to direct treatment. He underscored the value of “those other extra pieces… creating strategies for getting outside, being healthy, not stuff that’s billable health care services, necessarily, but is about forming healthy connections.”

Panelists identified youth services such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs as important facilitators of preventative programs. Through a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Park County Human Services began a substance abuse prevention program. Susan Walton, Director of Human Services, noted the department is also discussing how to make inroads with homeschooled youth, a large and vulnerable population in the area.

Andrea Carlstrom of Chaffee County Public Health noted, “Overwhelmingly, what I am hearing is we need empathy training, and it needs to start early, and it needs to not only be focused on our young people but their parents and caregivers as well.” Similar ideas about supporting caregivers who model healthy behavior to children was also raised by Mr.Turner. For example, in Fremont County, Solvista Health is working to provide resiliency coaching and support to grandparents who serve as caregivers.

After reassessing how to best address the issue of youth mental health, the Central Peaks Regional Council decided to expand its focus area to encompass resiliency more broadly. The Council valued the perspective provided by the panelists that this broader view of resiliency was essential in catching kids early and provided further inspiration on how to best support youth. Following the research and these discussions, the Council recommended funding to smaller organizations doing a wide range of preventative work from programs focused on gardening to horseback riding to expand the scope of their focus area and make new connections.

Continuing to understand how organizations are rebuilding connections through a variety of programs for youth and their families will inform the Council’s strategic funding decisions moving forward.

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