Jul 11, 2023 - News

Denver combats youth violence with in-school mental health services

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Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Denver is looking to tackle some of the root factors fueling teen violence and behavioral problems by putting more specialists in schools.

Why it matters: The youth mental health crisis shows no signs of improving, leaving schools to increasingly bear the burden as frontline responders amid rising rates of suicidal ideation, overdoses and gun violence.

Meanwhile, students in Denver and across the country are asking for more in-school mental health services as they navigate those unprecedented challenges, federal data shows.

  • Yes, but: This year, Denver is on track to have fewer youth- and juvenile-involved homicides and shootings, authorities tell us. As of June 28, the city has recorded 14 youth gun homicide victims compared to 32 in all of 2022.

Driving the news: Denver's health department is pushing an $861,000 proposal to launch a one-year pilot program this August that would expand mental health services in the city's public schools, using American Rescue Plan Act funds.

  • The program would place staffers at eight public schools to help identify underlying risks and pressures β€” from housing and food insecurity to grief and academic struggles β€” and provide tailored support that students need.
  • The pilot would also add a mobile unit, as part of its Wellness Winnie initiative, to target kids and families at youth-serving organizations across the city with food services, sexual health resources and more.

What they're saying: With mental health issues like depression and anxiety skyrocketing in the wake of the pandemic, kids need all the support they can get, says Nachshon Zohari, who will oversee the program for the health department.

  • "The youth took a big hit during those three years, and they're still recovering," he tells us.

Zoom in: The eight staffers would be placed at North, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and DELTA high schools; West and Lake middle schools; and the North Engagement Center and Respect Academy, Chalkbeat reports.

Reality check: It remains unclear whether the city will be able to hire β€” or keep β€” the mental health workers it's looking for.

  • Behavioral health is already facing a squeeze, with a shortage of qualified workers creating barriers to care, Axios' Sabrina Moreno writes.
  • To help improve its hiring odds, the city is creating a "behavioral health staffing pipeline" to give existing school staff the opportunity to be licensed in behavioral health and earn higher pay.

What's next: The proposal is expected to be approved by the Denver City Council in the coming weeks, officials tell us.

  • Success will be determined through several metrics, including the number of people served and the outcome of those interactions, Zohari says. A third-party team will also be hired to evaluate the program.

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