mental health bills

Kari Eckert of Golden holds a picture of her son, Robbie, who died from suicide, before a hearing on Feb. 6, 2020, on two bills aimed at improving mental health for students on campus. At her right are Lakewood student Hanna Newman and state Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver.

Hanna Newman, a junior at Lakewood High School, doesn't follow the logic. In the 11 years she's been in the school system, physical health has been part of the curriculum.

Mental health, however, has been an afterthought, she said at the state Capitol on Thursday, as she tried to change that situation in the name of her friend, Robbie Eckert, a suicide victim and the namesake of Robbie's Hope

"As a student, I think physical health and mental well-being should be treated the same," she told the Senate Education Committee. "I fail to understand why we differentiate the two."

Later, she explained more about the sameness: "Sometimes if you're not feeling well, you don't want to sit in classes all day, but it's the same thing if you're feeling sad."

The Senate Education Committee took up two bills aimed at improving mental health for students Thursday, one that would give adults on campus more tools to spot and address problems, and the other would make a mental health day a valid reason to miss school. Both passed unanimously.

"Teachers spend a lot of their time with their students and can be a vital outlet for us to talk to," Newman told lawmakers. "Oftentimes they're not equipped with the resources to help even though they want what's best for us students."

Teachers and school officials told the committee they don't have enough training or resources to cope with the emotions and challenges students face today.

The United Health Foundation presented Colorado with the dubious honor of having the highest increase in the teen suicide rate in the U.S. since 2016.

Newman said the bills could go a long way in removing the stigma of mental health from the student-teacher relationship.

Robbie's mother, Kari Eckert, said all the sign's were missed or ignored with her 15-year-old son, a successful student and athlete at Lakewood High.

"He was on no teacher's radar screen," she said.

Senate Bill 1 would expand behavioral health training For K-12 educators to spot warning signs and offer meaningful support. The program is voluntary and the Department of Education would provide the training, meaning it doesn't cost much more for taxpayers.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, with Reps. Emily Sirota, D-Denver, and Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch.

Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, a father of two, said kids' struggles today, with the prevalence of social media and cyberbullying, are tougher than the issues their parents faced.

Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, called for measurable goals to get ensure the training is reaching as many teachers and students as possible because the issue is too important to waste time or money.

"We must make sure the policies we shape and the money we spend to attack the mental health crisis that has spilled into our schools is smart policy and accountably spent money," Lundeen said via text after the vote.

Fields said she would be eager to work on that as the bill progresses to make sure the training reaches as many teachers and, therefore, students, as possible.

"We can't do better unless we know better," Fields said, adding, "I believe this bill will truly save lives."

Another piece of legislation that passed out of the same committee Thursday, Senate Bill 14, would make behavioral health an excused absence. It would not add extra absences to 10 per school year allowed under the Colorado School Attendance Law.

Fields is the main sponsor of that bill, as well, with Rep. Dafna Michaelson-Jenet, D-Commerce City.

Michaelson-Jenet said her mother was a depression survivor who made sure her kids had time to process.

"She knew the things we needed as children to take care of ourselves," Michaelson-Jenet said.

"Mental health days are as critical as physical health days."

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