Free youth mental health counseling service underutilized in the Yampa Valley
Access to behavioral and mental health services is the No. 1 community health priority identified in the recent 2022 Yampa Valley Community Health Needs Assessment, so any additional layer of services available to help local residents with mental health therapy is welcomed by local counselors.
A statewide program for youth that offers six free mental health counseling sessions from a licensed therapist has been underutilized so far in the Yampa Valley. The I Matter program, operated through the state Office of Behavioral Health and found online at IMatterColorado.org, targets youth 18 and younger who are struggling with mental health concerns or residents 21 or younger if they receive special education services.
Only 27 Routt County youth have used the I Matter service since its inception in October 2021, and less than 10 youth in Moffat County. Services are provided in English and Spanish.
I Matter is designed to help Colorado youth who might be struggling with anxiety, depression, frustration or just want to talk with someone. This summer, the state legislature renewed funding for the program to continue through at least June 2023.
“With a quick mental health survey, youth can gain insight into their emotions,” according to I Matter materials. “These evaluations are also used to pair them with the right mental health professional for free, confidential and compassionate therapy sessions.”
Shelby DeWolfe, behavioral health and restorative practices coordinator for the Steamboat Springs School District, said I Matter is another tool in the toolbox for the community.
“There is a high demand and need for mental health services in our community, and we are always working to increase access to mental health services for our students and families,” DeWolfe said. “We always want all students and families to be educated and have access to as many mental health resources as possible.”
Gina Toothaker, program director of Mind Springs Health in Steamboat, said she would like to see increased awareness in the valley about I Matter so more kids can receive assistance.
“There is a gap in affordability of services, and in some areas of Colorado, there is also a gap in access,” Toothaker said. “There are not enough therapists who work with kids.”
The 194 counselors currently registered with I Matter live throughout Colorado, and a majority of appointments take place via telehealth, explained Charlotte Whitney, deputy communications director for the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health. After completing an online survey, youth can choose from recommended counselors and select an appointment time within a two-week window.
Despite low usage numbers in the Yampa Valley, Whitney said the year-old program has been successful so far, offering at least one therapy session to 4,293 youth and more than three sessions to 2,484 youth. The areas with the highest utilization include Adams, Arapahoe, Denver, El Paso and Jefferson counties. She said 84% of youth keep their scheduled appointments, and the youth served most commonly are dealing with depression or anxiety.
Whitney noted that school counselors find I Matter is especially helpful when school is not in session during holiday and summer breaks. Youth 12 and older can fill out the online survey on their own. After six free sessions, a care navigator reaches out to participants to see what further assistance may be needed.
DeWolfe said the free I Matter service can be a short-term resource for youth needing a sounding board to discuss thinking distortions, catastrophizing or stress in their lives. She said the district counseling team believes I Matter can provide some support and relief, but “we have not experienced it addressing underlying issues, trauma or family systems work that is often needed.”
I Matter aims to reduce barriers such as costs or the possible stigma or bother of scheduling at a counseling office. Youth who prefer a more tech-savvy, low-pressure-style of counseling may also gravitate to I Matter.
DeWolfe said the telehealth-style counseling service has received mixed reviews from local youth and families.
“Some say the process of accessing the services and virtual sessions felt impersonal and fell short of their expectations regarding addressing their concerns,” DeWolfe said. “Others have shared that it was what they needed while waiting for in-person, local support options to free up.”
I Matter is not a crisis support service; Colorado Crisis Services is available via phone or text at 844-493-TALK (8255).
Any organization ranging from a library to a community center is welcome to request promotional materials to help get the word out about I Matter, Whitney said. Free posters, rack cards, stickers or banners can be shipped at no charge by request through an online form at IMattercolorado.org/about.
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