Shining a Light on Teen Mental Health in Colorado

Teens are sounding the alarm; how do we chart a path forward? 

“National youth mental health crisis”

How does Colorado compare to the rest of the nation when it comes to the teen mental health crisis?

We’ve all seen the national statistics about teen mental health since COVID-19 and the unmet mental health needs of children and adolescents in the U.S. The loss, disruption, and isolation of the pandemic contributed to worsening mental health conditions, but conditions had been getting worse for long before the global lockdown. In the decade prior to COVID-19, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness, as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors, had increased by about 40% among young people.

Years of failing to attend to children’s and adolescents’ mental health needs, exacerbated by the numerous hardships of living during the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in what the U.S. Surgeon General termed “a national youth mental health crisis.”

How does Colorado compare to national teen mental health rates?

Colorado vs. national rates of teen depression

When comparing the mental health of Colorado’s teenagers to their counterparts nationwide, the picture appears relatively favorable. According to the 2023 Youth Data from Mental Health America, Colorado ranks 11th out of 51 (including the District of Columbia) in terms of lower prevalence of mental illness and higher rates of access to care for young individuals in need. However, when focusing specifically on depression, our state’s standing is somewhat less promising. Colorado is positioned 27th for the prevalence of youth experiencing at least one major depressive episode and 21st for those experiencing at least one severe major depressive episode. While these rankings may seem passable, it is crucial to underscore the actual statistics: 17.05% of Colorado’s teens endure at least one major depressive episode within a year, and 10.9% experience at least one severe major depressive episode within the same timeframe. These numbers are far from insignificant and affect our teens for their entire lives.

Colorado vs. national rates of teen treatment

In terms of treatment rates, the national landscape reveals a distressing reality. The majority of young individuals with major depression across the country do not receive any form of mental health treatment (59.8%). In Colorado, we fare slightly better, with only 34.4% of youth with major depression lacking access to treatment. Furthermore, our state boasts higher rates of youth receiving some degree of treatment (ranging from 7 to 25+ visits in a year) compared to the national average: 57.4% versus 28%.

Additional concerning data indicates that over 19% of youth report having a long-term emotional or learning disability, while 23.2% of individuals aged 11 to 18 acknowledge their need for behavioral health services in the upcoming month.

Teen Suicide

Teen suicide remains a deeply troubling issue that makes up the teen mental health crisis. In 2020, it stood as the second leading cause of death among individuals aged 10-14 and the third leading cause among those aged 15-24 in the United States. Encouragingly, there has been a recent decline in weekly emergency room visits for mental health concerns and suicide-related behaviors among adolescents (12-17 years old). The fall of 2022 witnessed these emergency room visits returning to or dropping below pre-pandemic levels.

In Colorado, 7.2% of youth reported a suicide attempt in the past year, with the highest burden falling on Park, Teller, Clear Creek, and Gilpin Counties, where the rate reaches 13.1% for the region. Moreover, it is noteworthy that female and LGBTQ+ teens exhibit a significantly higher likelihood of contemplating, planning, and attempting suicide; however, their suicide attempts typically are not successful.

Increasing substance use and acceptability

Across the nation, there has been a concerning increase in alcohol and substance use, particularly among young adults. Binge drinking and marijuana consumption rates have risen, painting a troubling picture. According to SAMHSA’s 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Colorado’s youth are exhibiting higher rates of problematic substance use compared to the national average. Disturbingly, Colorado teens are increasingly viewing substance use as an acceptable coping mechanism for stress, social isolation, and a decline in academic and personal aspirations. Compounding the issue, rural areas in Colorado face even higher levels of alcohol and substance use, exacerbated by limited access to mental health and substance abuse treatment resources.

Graph depicting the prevalence of substance use among 12 to 17 year olds within various sub-categories, comparing both colorado and national levels of prevalence.

Similar to adolescents struggling with depression, a significant portion of those dealing with substance use problems do not receive the necessary care for achieving long-term recovery. Shockingly, in 2021 alone, 46,000 adolescents in Colorado were left without the substance abuse treatment they needed.

Graph depicting the amount of adolescents needing treatment who do not receive it, comparing colorado and national rates of incidence.

If left untreated, substance use issues during adolescence have far-reaching consequences, manifesting as severe and enduring substance misuse in adulthood. This trajectory leads to dire outcomes across various domains, encompassing lifelong disability, financial hardships, potential homelessness, legal entanglements, accidental overdoses or fatalities, the development of chronic health conditions, and difficulties in relationships.

Prioritizing the mental health of our teens

To effectively support the mental and behavioral well-being of adolescents, early identification and comprehensive prevention efforts are imperative. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends routine anxiety screenings for young individuals aged 8 to 18, as well as regular depression screenings for adolescents aged 12 to 18. By emphasizing protective factors like school connectedness and parental monitoring and addressing social determinants of health such as unstable housing, we can establish enduring safeguards for adolescent mental health.

In 2021, over a quarter of Colorado’s youth reported lacking access to a supportive adult when facing serious problems. By fostering connected communities where young individuals feel supported, each of us can contribute to tackling this pressing crisis.

To effectively address the escalating mental health needs of children and adolescents, it is crucial to build and enhance trauma-informed, evidence-based interventions. The advent of telehealth has increased the availability and accessibility of services, while the digital mental health realm has witnessed rapid innovation in recent years. However, not all resources are created equal. Thoughtfully evaluating mental health apps and digital therapeutics is essential to ensure that adolescents truly benefit from the abundance of resources available.

It is evident that teenagers are grappling with significant challenges, and it is incumbent upon us to finally listen to their longstanding concerns. Prioritizing investments in adolescent mental health is both necessary and essential.

How Antelope Recovery aims to help

At Antelope Recovery, we are deeply committed to shining a light on teen mental health in Colorado. Our mission is to provide a beacon of hope for families and teenagers facing mental health challenges. Through our comprehensive programs, including intensive outpatient programming, outpatient therapy, family counseling, and teen support groups, we offer a safe and nurturing space for teens to heal, grow, and thrive. We believe that by raising awareness, fostering open conversations, and providing accessible and compassionate care, we can make a positive impact on the lives of Colorado’s youth and their families. If you or someone you know is struggling with teen mental health issues, please reach out to Antelope Recovery today. Together, we can navigate the path to brighter days and a healthier future for our teens.

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