Denver student hopes wellness room eases youth mental health crisis

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Colorado Children’s Hospital first sounded the alarm in May 2021 by declaring a “state of emergency” for youth mental health. The goal was to really capture the attention of coloradans and policy makers and communicate the true gravity of what children were going through.

[Related: Colorado doctors say kids’ mental health is in a “state of emergency” during the pandemic]

Comparing figures from early 2019 to early 2022, the children’s hospital saw a 103% increase in the number of patients arriving in crisis. In the past year alone, the hospital has seen a 23% increase in the number of patients in crisis. While those numbers are alarming, Hawks said there’s another stat that worries him more.

“Only about 22% of youth in the state of Colorado who require mental health services because of the severity of their mental health issues are Actually getting the treatment they need,” Hawks said.

According to Children’s Hospital Colorado, from 2019 to 2022, the number of young patients in mental health crisis doubled.

For Pitones, those numbers follow in his world.

“There’s at least one or two people in a group of friends who … have some form of depression or anxiety or, like, at least a suicide plan,” Pitones said.

She faced mental health issues herself, which began when she had physical health issues. She suffered from chronic back pain at a young age with a family history of arthritis striking along with a growth spurt.

“So I had to go to the children’s hospital for… physical therapy. And I also had a therapist to talk to there. So it’s just like, ‘Why is your sanity declining?’ Because I can’t do that. I can’t, you know, do my regular sports. I can’t play volleyball or football anymore because everything hurts me,” Pitones told his therapist.

She said that through working with her therapist, Pitones realized how to change that “I can’t” mindset to be less restrictive and celebrate what she can still do.

“I feel more energetic to go out and try something even though I know it’s going to hurt, but it’s going to make me better,” Pitones said.

Apart from her personal journey, this school year she is working on a project to help her peers. Pitones is on the Youth Action Council with the Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital of Colorado. This council is made up of nearly 20 teens from the Denver metro area who want to raise awareness and destigmatize mental health issues.

Pitones got involved last year and helped draw up plans to build a ‘wellness room’ inside her school.

“It’s like a decompression space where, for example, students can come in and…relax and take a break,” Pitones said, “because the school day is quite long.”

The wellness room space of the Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy. Photo courtesy of Kate Pitones.

The wellness room will be built into a space in the school library and will include items like bean bag chairs and soundproof headphones. The hope is that it becomes a place to take a break and prevent students from completely collapsing.

“As best you can try to get through the day without, like, having the idea of, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so overwhelmed. I don’t think I’m going to make it through this day because I’m going to have some kind of nervous breakdown,” Pitones explained.

This wellness room will not be operational until the end of October or November because they have not been able to work there this summer. However, Pitones is delighted that students are using it and has heard that they are eagerly waiting for it to be opened.

“The thing is, you can decompress and go back to class with a better mindset and not just drop out of the whole class and get a failing grade for the day in that class,” she said.

For the start of the school year, especially this year, children will have to deal with an increasing amount of stress in other ways.

“We consistently see an increase in mental health issues at this point in the school year, and that’s because going back to school is inherently stressful for everyone. There are going to be more academic pressures. You’re around your peer group, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the situation,” Hawks explained.

The other hurdle students will face this year is increased expectations of “returning to normal” when so much growth and development has been missed. Apart from academic setbacks, especially based on age, students missed the socialization and structure of in-person learning.

[Related: CMAS results: Colorado students make gains but still below pre-pandemic levels]

“If you think of young children in school in second, third grade their first two years in elementary school were completely unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. So they’re going back to school almost for the first time,” Hawks said.

While it’s not always possible to stop stressors, Hawks pointed out there are concrete things young people and parents can do to really make a difference and even save a life.

Jessica Hawks, Ph.D., clinical child and adolescent psychologist and clinical director of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“One of the most important things young people need to remember when they go back to school is to get back to basics. It’s amazing the difference all the basic health and hygiene things can have on our mental health,” Hawks said. “The number one thing adults can do to support their children is to check in with them regularly and spend quality time together.”

In her work, Hawks said she often works with parents and their children in tandem on how to improve mental health and develop healthy coping skills. She said it’s common for parents to feel guilty about their child’s depression, anxiety or mental illness. She encourages parents not to focus on guilt but on how they can help move on.

“What’s really great about young people is that they’re deeply and positively affected by the adults in their lives,” Hawks said. “Pay attention to your child and ask ‘Hey, how are you?’ And really listen to what they say, then make a plan.If your child is struggling, give them the support they need.

For Pitones, she means children to look out for themselves and others and to know that help is there. She shared a story of when a friend showed signs of worrying behavior dropping out of class, not eating, hanging out with “the wrong crowd” as she put it. Pitones and his friends spoke to this girl and found out that she was planning on harming herself. That’s when they made the difficult decision to tell a teacher.

“[They] walked her into the school counselor’s office, and it was kind of a scary moment because it was, like, ‘Is she going to be mad at us for getting her this help?’ “, explained Pitones. “No, she was very relieved that we were doing this.”

Pitones said this friend was able to find a therapist and spoke to him recently. She is doing well and has happily welcomed a new puppy into her family.

Over the past few years, Pitones has learned a lot about mental health, but most importantly, the power of talking about struggles and helping break down the stigma of seeking help.

“At least talking about it or letting it be known … that you’re there for them, that’s a really big help,” Pitones said. “[They’re] don’t be so afraid to reach out.

Kate Pitones helps build a wellness room for her classmates at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy.

Amanda Horvath is an executive producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can email him at [email protected].

Jeremy Moore is a senior multimedia reporter at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can email him at [email protected].

Kate Johnson is a video editor at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can email him at [email protected].

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