To protect young people's behavioral health, embrace authentic connection

By Brook Griese

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it is difficult but necessary that we continue our focus on another public health crisis impacting our state. 

Lives depend on it. 

Our behavioral health care system in Colorado desperately needs transformation, and we must maintain our momentum towards creating meaningful change. In 2018, more than 200 Colorado youth and young adults lost their lives to suicide — our state’s leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds. 

This is not acceptable. 

Our youth are experiencing the highest levels of stress, depression and anxiety ever. We must tackle this epidemic with the same passion and compassion mobilized in our efforts to combat COVID-19.

As a clinical psychologist, a mother of adolescents, and co-founder of Judi’s House, a nonprofit family bereavement center providing comprehensive grief care, I have a unique perspective to offer. I have seen firsthand the devastating impact of the rise in suicide and overdose deaths for the children and families left in their wake. It is hard to imagine anything more painful than grieving the death of your own child to suicide. The courage and empathy that grows in a room full of parents sharing in this unfathomable grief has fueled my desire to help reverse our youth behavioral health crisis. 

We must do better. 

I have seen the power of prevention. When a young person experiences adversity, such as bereavement or trauma, we have a tremendous opportunity to fortify them with healthy coping strategies and emotional outlets — before their difficulties progress to a diagnosable condition — to help them stay on a positive developmental trajectory. Given the unique challenges facing all youth at this unprecedented time, including the social comparison and bullying exacerbated by the misuse of technology and social media, we need to invest in upstream universal prevention and the promotion of social emotional skills in our schools, primary care settings, homes and communities. This is the only way to decrease the number of youth who are progressing to a level of acuity that our current behavioral health system cannot manage.

We have a responsibility.

I have seen the return on investment that accompanies thoughtful care coordination. Navigating the system of care is daunting for families of all walks of life, and it is crucial that youth and their caregivers have support in dialing in to the right service at the right time, rather than bouncing from one wrong door to the next. Given how critical days, weeks and months are for a child’s brain and behavior development, we must ensure timely access to care.

We can make a difference.

I value the hard work, creative problem solving and passionate advocacy of my colleagues on the Children’s Subcommittee of the Colorado Behavioral Health Task Force. I am humbled and inspired by the brave and honest family members who have offered their public testimony in communities throughout Colorado to inform this work. We must continue our progress towards creating a blueprint for the future that will help youth and families across our state have access to affordable and effective services and supports. 

The time is now.

Given our heightened stress, uncertainty and loss, elevations in mental health and substance use issues are expected and are best mitigated by our most powerful agent: connection. Preserving powerful personal connections while social distancing is challenging, but this time of necessary physical isolation may help us appreciate and embrace authentic connection more than ever before. This is a time for strengthening our family and community bonds and for helping our youth build up their own emotional immune system — their adaptability, coping competence, grit and resilience. And as a state, this is our time to strengthen our system of care to promote the behavioral health and wellbeing of all youth and families in every community.

Brooke Griese is co-founder of Judi's House, a Denver-based nonprofit whose mission is to help children and families grieving a death find connection and healing.