▶ Watch Video: Inside one school’s plan to help kids facing mental health crises

Amid the growing crisis in youth mental health services, Cherry Creek School District in Greenwood Village, Colorado, is trying something new: constructing a new building that will be part mental health medical facility, part school.  

The district teamed up with the University of Colorado and Children’s Hospital Colorado to use $15 million in public bond money to build this first-of-its-kind facility.  

“For me, it’s bigger than academics. It’s understanding that our kids need us. Our kids need us to be there for them,” Christopher Smith, the district’s superintendent, said. “Kids need us to be there right now. If they feel loved, they feel invested in, they feel valued, they won’t hurt themselves and they won’t hurt others.” 

Cherry Creek School Superintendent Christopher Smith believes the facility, called Traverse Academy, will not just help children with their social and emotional learning but also engage them and address their educational needs. It will serve as both a school and treatment facility to help children transition back into day-to-day life. 

University of Colorado’s Department of Psychiatry professor Anthony Bruno says the approach hasn’t been tried before anywhere in the country. 

Something different

Traverse Academy was the brainchild of Dr. Tony Poole, assistant superintendent of special populations for the Cherry Creek School District.  

“I’ve just seen the adolescent mental health crisis in Colorado get worse and worse and worse,” said Dr. Poole. “To the extent that we really needed to do something as a school district. Something different, he said.  When they couldn’t find what they were looking for in the community, he said, “the best answer we could come up with was to build our own.” 

Poole gave CBS News a tour of the facility, still under construction. When finished, it will be a unique, first-in-the-nation combination mental health treatment center/hospital and transitional school.  

“We designed the facility to be non-institutional,” said Poole. “We want this to be a place that kids enjoy being in and feel welcome and supported.” 

When complete the facility will be divided into three sections: a full-time day treatment facility for acute mental health care, an area with less intense mental health services where educational instruction will be introduced, and an entire wing where the students will focus on their education while also receiving mental health services.  

“What’s unique about it is that it will have different levels of therapies in one place.  What’s exciting is that it will be integrated into a more educational context so it will be easier for the children to go back to the classroom,” Bruno said. 

In all, officials say most young people will only spend a few weeks in each of the three parts of the facility before going back to school in a traditional setting full-time. 

Bruno says that in the past medical and educational experts tended to stay in separate and specialized silos and that many school districts can’t afford to provide intense mental health treatment required to address their students in crisis. 

“What happened in Cherry Creek is probably what happens in a lot of other school districts around the country,” said Bruno. “They [the district] really don’t have the resources necessarily always to deal with kids with serious emotional issues. So, what do they do? They look outside of the school for help in placing kids so that they can have more intense mental health treatment.” 

Bruno says this new combined facility of treatment center and school has, not only has the potential to provide a cost-effective alternative to hospitalization, but also a way to decrease depression and anxiety among participants because the setting is not a typical clinical medical facility. 

Schools in need

Traverse Academy is a result of a commitment to mental health by the citizens of Greenwood Village.  

But CBS News Investigations found that most other schools districts struggle to provide basic therapy and counseling. 

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, in order for the nation to meet current demand, schools will need to more than double the number of psychologists on staff.  

And data from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) shows 79% of the nation, 41 states, have a “severe” shortage of child psychiatrists. 

Every other state, according to the AACAP, has a shortage of therapists. Only the District of Columbia has what the AACAP says is enough specialists to meet the need there. 

Poole admits that because this approach has never been tried there could be some setbacks and challenges that others can learn from.   

“This can be a model not only for the state of Colorado, but for the nation,” said Poole. “And this can be part of the answer” to addressing the child mental health crisis

Poole and Superintendent Smith agree that money can be an issue for some school districts.  This new facility required the passage of a $15 million dollar bond by voters in the community to build.   

Smith says it’s all about priorities. 

“I believe you can’t be successful if you don’t have significant priorities. If everything is a priority, nothing is,” said Smith. “And so, yeah, absolutely, priority is number one” for this facility and for addressing youth mental health. 

In his 34 years in education, Poole echoed Bruno, saying educators and medical professionals have always tended to stay in their own lanes.  

“We always have felt we don’t do clinical level therapeutic intervention. We are not a mental health facility. We are educators,” Poole said. “If you have to have hospitalization or medical care, therapeutic or clinical interventions you go to a hospital or day treatment facility. That attitude has to change.”  

“I think unfortunately, the crisis that we have come into has led us to breaking down those barriers,” said Poole. 

“No one is used to this kind of thinking. It just has always been siloed.”  Poole said. “This facility will save lives. This is important, and this can be a model for others.” 

Currently, Cherry Creek runs a Sources of Strength project to increase well-being for all students by developing resiliency and a sense of belonging. The program also created an therapy class open to anyone in the school.  

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Calling the issue of child mental health “the most pressing issue facing our state and our country,” Dr. Michele Lueck, executive director of Partners for Children’s Mental Health, said her organization wants to make mental health more accessible to more children in Colorado. 

Partners for Children’s Mental Health is a non-profit formed in 2017 by the University of Colorado and Children’s Hospital Colorado to help streamline and formalize specific programs to address the youth mental health crisis. 

One of the programs they came up with is the youth advisory group which offers input, perspective and guidance to adults in leadership at the hospital to better meet young people where they are in crisis. 

Each month the youth advisory group meets to provide hospital staff direct input into the mental health crisis affecting the youth in the area. The advisory group consists of high school students and young people who’ve been recognized as leaders in their community, some of whom have gone through their own mental health struggles.  

“If we don’t do a better job of creating environments where kids can grow and learn and be successful and thrive socially and emotionally, we are not doing our job for the next generation,” Lueck said. 

The advisory group gathers in person or via remote video conferencing to share their experiences and suggestions for best practices and input on what works and what doesn’t work when approaching youth who struggle with mental health challenges. 

“Our theory is that if we work with those kids who are at risk but have not ended up in the emergency room, have not sort of tipped the scales to make that into a crisis event,” said Lueck, “we can work on real active prevention with those kids.” 

To get a sense of how the program works, Lueck’s team allowed CBS News to observe on one group advisory session to see how the program works and how the advisor’s input speaks to the states of mind many of their peers are experiencing.  

We listened as one student advisor spoke of the COVID pandemic’s effect on her mental health,  

“It felt like a fever dream,” Vanessa said. “Not really being able to go out or see friends or do anything, it just felt like the same day, like repeating over and over again, which really it took a toll on me after a while.” 

CBS News is only using the first names of former patients to protect their privacy. 

Vanessa, an Asian-American teenager, spoke about the stigma surrounding mental health issues in some cultures.  

“In a lot of different Asian cultures, mental health or struggles are not really emphasized as much as it is in Western cultures,” Vanessa said. “That’s just a huge indicator of the kind of silencing that happens in a lot of families because of stigmas like this. It’s not just kids who need to learn more about mental health. It’s also adults and the people who are the most afraid of it.” 

During the session we heard from another youth advisor named Kaitlyn, who said she felt disconnected during the pandemic. 

“I did start feeling some more serious symptoms like loneliness and disconnect between some of my peer support networks and my friends,” Kaitlyn said. “I’m like, I need to have some people around me.” 

Cydnee, another youth advisor, talked about lack of awareness among adults, “for me, my school, my teachers are not really equipped to actually deal with mental health.” 

As for sharing their feelings with teachers or school officials, Rachel, a high schooler admitted “It’s hard to really open up and discuss what’s really going on.” 

Lueck says the advisory group’s input has already shaped the way adults overseeing mental health at the hospital make decisions and approach individual young people in crisis. 

But Lueck says everyone from doctors to nurses, therapists to teachers, students to residents, must do even more. 

“It’s a crisis situation. And so, I don’t think that we can do enough,” said Lueck. “Schools have to do their part. Behavioral health care systems need to do their part. Hospitals and primary care doctors need to do their part. But you and I need to do our parts. We need to think about what we can do in our neighborhoods.” 

If you or someone you know is in crisis, get help from the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988

In addition, help is available from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. Call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-6264 or text “HelpLine” to 62640. There are more than 600 local NAMI organizations and affiliates across the country, many of which offer free support and education programs.