In 2019, when STEM School Highlands Ranch faced tragedy after two student gunmen ran into the school, killing one fellow student, it rocked the community.
For Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, it was a call to get more involved with helping youths who struggle with mental illness.
In 2014, the county commissioners directed staff to develop a program aimed at helping adults in need of mental health care. After years of planning, the Mental Health Initiative (MHI) started taking a hands-on approach to helping adults in 2016.
MHI Director Laura Ciancone said even before the 2019 shooting, data was showing a gap. It was becoming clear that not just adults needed the services developed through MHI, but youths, teenagers and young adults under 25 needed assistance, she said.
In 2017, MHI saw success in taking a different approach in answering calls for help for people in crisis. Instead of just having a police officer head to the scene and put the person in jail or a hospital bed, the county took a more interactive approach.
Through a pilot program with the Castle Rock Police Department, MHI started using a Community Response Team (CRT), which consisted of a police officer, certified clinician and EMT.
Seeing the CRT program's success for adults, Ciancone said MHI started a Youth Community Response Team (YCRT) in 2019. This team's sole purpose is to coordinate with local schools and youth organizations to reach young people in full crisis, or in need of extra mental health support.
Stephanie Crawford-Goetz, director of mental health for the Douglas County School District, said the services provided through MHI are an added resource to the team of counselors and psychologists on hand to deal with students in need of support.
In 2019, Douglas County School District started working with MHI on a small scale, doing a pilot program with schools in Highlands Ranch. Crawford-Goetz said the YCRT can be called for a variety of reasons — a student expressing suicidal thoughts, dealing with a recent trauma, having an individual crisis, experiencing uneven feelings or wanting to hurt others are among a few reasons the county program may get involved.
“What the county has provided is both positive and welcome,” Crawford-Goetz said. “Now, with the (YCRT), these students get to stay in school and get the help they need instead of being sent to an ER. They keep a consistent routine that does not disrupt their lives because of some struggles.”
Like the adult CRT program, after students are connected with the youth team, they are consistently monitored, checked on and evaluated by an assigned case manager.
Sid Rundle, a student support specialist with Douglas County School District, said the services offered through MHI are continually helping vulnerable and at-risk students. After 13 years with the district, Rundle said it would be misguided to think the schools have all the answers.
“That is not true; we do not have all the answers,” he said. “That is why we rely on these important community partnerships. Back in my day, it was all about math and reading. Now, it is about social well-being, too.”
Mental health was already a concern for educators before 2020, but Rundle said once the pandemic hit, the crisis brewing among young people was brought to the surface and became more prevalent.
“Too often, the mistake being made is saying this is just a pandemic moment,” Rundle said. “But we do not want to lose the marathon. We had more anxiety and students struggling before the pandemic. The pandemic exposed it.”
In Douglas County, when the pandemic exposed a growing problem with students struggling beyond physical health, Rundle said the development of MHI years before has helped put the school district and youth in Douglas County ahead.
“We have not been starting from zero,” Rundle said. “In Douglas County, we have tremendously talented people facing this head on. We are working to be more conscious as educators. Children are social, emotional, intellectual human beings. They can't be just learning. We want to elevate their social and emotional knowledge.”
Rundle said MHI has also done a good job in working to eliminate the stigma around mental health issues. Too often youths and teenagers are afraid to come forward and ask for help, he said. Through education and informational programs hosted by MHI, Rundle said there has been success in removing the stigma.
National events have also helped students see that it is OK to come forward and ask for help. Looking at the Olympics, Rundle said well-known gymnast Simone Biles did a lot to clear the path for vulnerable and at-risk students to admit they are not OK.
During the 2021 Olympics, Biles pulled out of team and individual competition, citing mental health concerns.
Douglas County Deputy Manager Barbara Drake said from the start, a major MHI goal has been to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and to encourage adults and youth to come forward when they need help without judgment.