A Vote for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in Our Schools

At a time in our history when our flags seem to fly at half-mast more often than not, our kids are referring to themselves as “the mass shooting generation,” and suicide rates and drug overdoses are at an all-time high, we have an opportunity to make a difference in our kids’ lives at the polls by voting for candidates and ballot measures that make the current mental health and opioid crisis a priority.

As a Jefferson County, Colorado resident, I support ballot measures 5A and 5B which propose to improve student safety by upgrading school security and providing additional mental health services to include suicide prevention and substance abuse counseling. These measures will also provide funding to expand academic and early education programs, renovate dilapidated buildings, and offer competitive teacher salaries to attract more qualified teachers to our district.

Many of our nation’s schools are recognizing the need for better security measures and mental health and substance abuse services by putting these issues on the ballot. It’s up to us to support our schools in their effort to provide a safer environment for our children who have even begun advocating for themselves this year following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey, 72% of today’s youth, also referred to as Generation Z, say that the possibility of a mass shooting occurring in their school is a major source of stress. The APA states that this generation is also much more likely to report that they have fair or poor mental health compared to other generations. In addition, they are more likely to have a mental health diagnosis such as anxiety or depression. According to the most recent report from the Office of Suicide Prevention in Colorado, suicide is the leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24 in my state. APA reports that nearly half of this generation also says they know someone with a drug or alcohol problem, but 35% said they would not know how to get help for a friend or family member with this issue.

It’s time to tell our kids that their cries for help have been heard and that we will invest in their well-being. Jeffco Public Schools, home to Columbine High School, has not seen a school funding measure passed since 2012. I’m voting for this year’s ballot measures, 5A and 5B, because they are about more than just reducing classroom sizes and increasing teacher salaries. While those things are important, 5A and 5B also address the mental health needs and safety of our students which can no longer be ignored. Our kids can’t afford for 5A and 5B not to pass.

The Youth Juuling Epidemic: Underlying Issues

This month, in light of increasing e-cigarette use among teenagers, my son’s weekly high school newsletter has been providing facts about the harmful effects of juuling, or vaping. As a parent of two teenagers, I have witnessed first-hand, the relationships among e-cigarettes, drug addiction, and mental health disorders. If your kids are juuling, there may be more serious underlying issues.

My kids, like most teenagers, seem to be under the impression that their parents were born full-grown adults who have never experienced peer pressure, bullying, depression, or anxiety. While these things have plagued teenagers since the beginning of time, I will admit that they do seem to be far more prevalent in my children’s generation. Kids today also seem far less able to cope with them and more likely to turn to e-cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs. I believe the added influence of technology is to blame.

While it’s hard to imagine life without technology now, I’m glad I grew up in a time without cell phones, the internet, and social media. There is a sense of self-sufficiency, confidence, and civility that comes from having to communicate with people face-to-face or having to find one’s way from point A to point B by looking at a map or asking someone for directions. Instead, our children lack communication skills, confidence in their abilities, and empathy for others. They also have great anxiety about doing anything for themselves. They hide behind superficial and often cruel text messages and social media posts. They avoid eye contact and real social interactions. They rely on the internet and GPS to do everything for them.

To cope with all of this, along with the usual pressures of school and the additional fear of school shootings, it’s no wonder teens turn to e-cigarettes for stress relief. The Juul, with its enticing flavors and resemblance to a USB drive, is particularly attractive to tech-savvy teens. It’s also more harmful than they realize. According to a Truth Initiative study, 63% of teens and young adults did not know that Juul pods always contain nicotine. In fact, the Truth Initiative states that the amount of nicotine in one Juul pod is equivalent to the amount of nicotine in a whole pack of cigarettes.

Kids who use e-cigarettes put themselves at risk for nicotine addiction as well as addiction to other drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out that prolonged e-cigarette use can cause other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine to have a more pleasurable effect on a teen’s developing brain. NIDA also states that nicotine can have other negative effects on the brain such as attention and learning difficulties, as well as mood disorders and impulse control problems leading to self-harm or harm to others.

My daughter, who developed bipolar disorder as a teen, used e-cigarettes prior to using marijuana. She smoked marijuana prior to smoking and then injecting crystal meth and heroin. She would roll her eyes at me when I used the term “gateway drug” because she thought e-cigarettes and marijuana were harmless. According to a National Public Radio article, fewer teens believe marijuana is harmful to their health today than the mid-2000s. The article suggests that legalization of the drug may lead to this perception.

My state, which legalized marijuana in 2014, also fares far worse when it comes to e-cigarette use among teens. In Colorado, 26% of high school students used e-cigarettes in 2017 compared to 11.7% of high school students in the nation, according to Tobacco-Free Kids statistics. Colorado is also one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to the prevalence of mental illness, substance abuse, and access to care for youth, according to a 2018 report from Mental Health America which ranked Colorado almost dead last at 48th.

Because juuling can be an indicator of an underlying mental health issue like depression or anxiety and can lead to other substance abuse addictions, I’m proud of my son’s school for recognizing this growing problem and alerting parents and students to its dangers.

For more information about the harmful effects of juuling, visit the American Cancer Society.

A Colorado State of Mind: Youth in Crisis

I’ve lived in Colorado for over 18 years now, and while I love the Centennial State for its majestic beauty, abundant sunshine, and plentiful recreational opportunities, my picturesque state falls short when it comes to combating the mental health and substance abuse crisis we are currently facing.

Two years after beginning our fruitless search for mental health treatment for our daughter Mallory, who has bipolar I disorder and a substance abuse addiction, I began attending National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) support groups and classes. After sharing my feelings of hopelessness with the group, the facilitators, who had similar frustrating experiences finding adequate help for their children, acknowledged that Colorado was not the best state in which to raise a child with a mental illness.

According to a 2018 report from Mental Health America (MHA) which ranked all 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) based on the prevalence of mental illness, substance abuse, and access to care, Colorado ranked nearly last at 48th for youth, 40th for adults, and 43rd overall. The Colorado Health Institute also listed Colorado as the state with the 9th highest suicide rate in the nation in 2017.

One Colorado couple who had been battling their insurance company to obtain treatment for their severely depressed son only received approval a month after he took his own life at the age of 14. According to NAMI, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S. among youth ages 10-14 and the 2nd leading cause of death in youth ages 15-24. In Colorado, the statistics are even worse. In a report from the Office of Suicide Prevention, suicide was listed as the number one cause of death among Colorado youth ages 10-24 in 2016. Why must we wait until it’s too late to get help for these kids?

In Mallory’s case, our insurance would not cover residential treatment even though we had a referral from a psychologist. Prior to that, we had sought help from our school district and were told by the director of an alternative school with mental health and substance abuse components that Mallory needed stabilization before she could attend. Despite being told she needed stabilization, we had been turned away from a psychiatric hospital because she hadn’t met their criteria for crisis stabilization. After being taken to another hospital from our home by the police, Mallory had also been discharged less than 24 hours later because she was again not considered an imminent danger to herself or others.

We had heard from several law enforcement officers and Department of Human Services (DHS) workers that if Mallory had criminal charges, more services would be available to us. It seems absurd to me that we have to wait until our kids start committing crimes before someone will help them. Wouldn’t it make more sense to be proactive and intervene before our kids are exposed to the criminal justice system, potentially preventing a lot crime in the process?

MHA stresses the importance of implementing Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) programs in schools and communities that can assess mental health risk and intervene early. My daughter’s concerning behaviors began at her middle school. She received detentions and suspensions for her behaviors but never met with the school psychologist until her freshman year of high school and only after we had asked repeatedly. By that time, she was already involved in truancy court and diagnosed with bipolar disorder by an outside psychologist we had taken her to for testing.

Mallory’s middle school had only one psychologist for nearly 1,000 kids. Her high school had one psychologist for roughly 2,200 kids. Just as our schools need more school resource officers to protect them from mass shootings, they also need more mental health professionals to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place.

MHA points out that other consequences of failing to intervene early include suicide, incarceration, homelessness, and school drop-out. According to NAMI, 70 percent of the nearly two million youths arrested in the U.S. every year have a mental health condition. If these kids could receive the care they need when they need it, a lot fewer kids would be arrested.

One of Colorado’s biggest shortcomings when it comes to mental health treatment for kids like Mallory who frequently run away and eventually end up incarcerated, is the absence of secure residential treatment facilities. Because there are none, the state places habitual runaways with mental health disorders in “staff secure” (not locked) facilities from which they can easily run. These kids end up on the streets, putting themselves in danger of becoming victims of sex trafficking. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), one in seven runaways reported in 2017 “were likely victims of child sex trafficking,” and 88 percent of those “were in the care of social services when they went missing.” Too many of us parents have had to place our children’s lives in the hands of our states who have failed them.

A friend and former coworker who once had a family member in DHS custody advised me to get my daughter out of the system as soon as possible. Mallory was 15 at the time. This week we will be celebrating her 19th birthday at a state youth services center in a tiny, locked visitation room with a folding table and four plastic chairs. No cake. No candles. No presents. We’ve never been able to get her out of the system.

In five months, though, Mallory will finally be released from the Division of Youth Services (DYS) after serving the entire two years of a 0-2-year sentence. Four residential treatment facilities and five youth services (detention) centers later, she is in worse shape than the day she was placed in DHS custody. Less than a week after her first DHS placement, she was introduced to a life of homelessness, drug addiction, and victimization – a life she wants to return to when she is released.

Before DHS got involved and before our daughter had a criminal record, we tried for over a year to get help for her. We were denied coverage by our insurance company, and we were repeatedly turned away by hospitals and other treatment providers because she was either “not an imminent danger to herself or others,” or they didn’t know how to help her.

Colorado kids are in crisis, and we need to help them before it’s too late. We need to implement PEI programs in schools and communities to prevent and treat problems in their early stages, we need better insurance coverage for mental health and substance abuse issues, and we need better treatment options that don’t require our kids to have criminal charges or their parents to give up custody of their children. It’s time we protected the beautiful minds of our children who will one day inherit our beautiful state.

Snooping to Save Lives

Is there a school shooter living under your roof? How would you know? In the wake of another devastating school shooting, we can all agree on one thing: we desperately need this to stop. Unfortunately, we all start pointing our fingers in different directions, and nothing changes. We blame guns, mental health, parents, law enforcement, schools, bullies, social media, violent movies, music, and video games. We point fingers of blame because our kids keep killing each other, and there were always signs that were missed or ignored. Can we do better in all of these areas? Absolutely. There are always lessons to be learned no matter what our role in society. It’s when we don’t learn from our mistakes that history tends to repeat itself.

I’ve been examining my own role in this history, and what I believe to be my lessons learned. Since I’m a parent of two teenagers who use writing as an outlet, I think it’s worth noting that school shooters often keep journals that are later cited in an investigation. Two days before the Santa Fe, Texas school shooting, I was scolded by my teenage son’s therapist for looking at his journal. “You shouldn’t read that. It’s private,” she said. “Tell that to Dylan Klebold’s mom,” I replied. That said, I don’t blame the Klebolds for Columbine. A couple years ago, after reading Sue Klebold’s book, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, I came to the conclusion that the Klebolds were good people. They were good parents who had also lost a child and were then blamed for his actions. At the same time, I don’t think they really knew who their son was. I’m not sure any of us really know who our children are. And more importantly, I don’t think we, as parents, have figured out what we could do differently from the Klebolds to prevent our kids from killing their classmates.

I was a teenager in the ’90s, prior to Columbine, and my mom was a snooper. It infuriated me, and it felt like a huge invasion of privacy. Was I plotting a school shooting? No. Was I getting into trouble at school or with the law? No. I was, however, suffering from severe depression, and I’d admitted to having suicidal thoughts. Though I didn’t like it, I believe my mom had a right to search my room and read my journal. Since Columbine, more than ever, I think we have a responsibility as parents to know what our kids are up to, especially if it’s going on under our roof, and especially in the presence of certain warning signs. Do you think this is a gross violation of your child’s privacy or rights? Then let me ask you this: if you were to lose a child in a school shooting, and the shooter had a journal detailing how and when he was going to do it, do you think you would wish his parents had taken a peek at it?

Will your kids be mad at you for snooping? Most definitely. They’ll also get over it. Today, I love my mom dearly and consider her to be one of my closest friends and confidants. Did I consider her a friend when I was a teenager? Hell, no, she was my mom. She wasn’t supposed to be my friend. She was supposed to set rules and expectations and make sure I followed them. I did, for the most part, but there were substantial consequences when I didn’t. I believe I’m a better person for it.

Your kids will get over your snooping, and when they’re in their forties they’ll still call you on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to tell you they love you . A parent who loses a child in a school shooting may never get over it, and they will never get that call. I think it’s time we put our children’s lives before their privacy.

If you suspect something is off with your child, trust your instincts. Know the warning signs of suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a great place to start. If your child seems angry or depressed, is doing poorly in school, or you suspect that he’s using drugs, talk to him about it. Let your child know you love him and are concerned about him. If he won’t open up to you, and you still have concerns, you have the right and a responsibility to search his room, monitor his texts, emails, internet searches, social media accounts, and yes, even his journal. You might just be saving a life.