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Children's Hospital Colorado appoints Mental Health-in-Chief amid mental health emergency

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Dr. K. Ron-Li Liaw is the first Mental Health-in-Chief for Children's Hospital Colorado.
Credit: Children's Hospital Colorado

AURORA, Colo. — Children’s Hospital Colorado has appointed a child and adolescent psychiatrist to lead efforts that will better support kids’ mental health during the current state of emergency for pediatric mental health.

Dr. K. Ron-Li Liaw is the first Mental Health-in-Chief for the hospital system.

“I’m coming at this both as a child psychiatrist and also a mom of three kids, and we’ve been navigating this for almost three years, virtual learning, school closures, quarantining; all of the disruptions of the day to day life as a child,” Liaw said.

Typically, anywhere from 10-30 kids a day are being seen in the Children’s Hospital system emergency rooms for various behavioral health crises. The leading cause of death for 10 to 24 year olds in Colorado is suicide. As a result, the hospital system declared a state of emergency for children’s mental health in May and recently brought in Liaw to help create an integrated system to address the behavioral health needs of Colorado’s younger population.

“Kids are struggling with anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. They’re struggling with substance abuse and alcohol abuse," said Liaw.

[Related: Two years into the pandemic, students still struggle with mental health]

Children’s Hospital of Colorado’s President and CEO Jenna Hausmann believes it’s time to make this move.

“We’re seeing at Children’s Colorado the disastrous downstream impacts of an already broken pediatric mental health system that’s been further strained by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hausmann said.

“Mental healthcare needs an upgrade," Liaw said. "What would it look like if we were really able to provide the right supports at the right time in the right places when they need us the most?”

Liaw said the strain is affecting everyone: “There’s a lot of stress on parents, on families, on teachers, on principles and everyone involved in the school system as well.”

Nationally, a state of emergency for pediatric mental health was declared in October by leading groups of pediatric health experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics. The U.S. surgeon general also issued an advisory to focus on the need to address the current mental health crisis for young people.

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

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes for one in five children even before the COVID-19 pandemic. What we’re seeing now is that the pandemic added to already existing challenges for so many children.

“Over the last several decades we've seen rising rate of mental health conditions in children. It’s a big part of healthcare and what families are seeking treatment and help for,” Liaw said.

For Liaw, that’s why it’s so important that Children’s Hospital Colorado is recognizing that mental health is just as important as physical health. Her advice to parents and families looking for help is to first talk to their primary care physician, then try the school health team (nurses and school psychologists), and if someone is in crisis they should go to the emergency room.


If you have an immediate mental health crisis, please call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also chat with the Lifeline.

Dana Knowles is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at danaknowles@rmpbs.org.

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