A break before a breakdown: Denver student hopes wellness room soothes youth mental health crisis


DENVER “Getting back up, that's the hardest part.”

Kate Pitones is part of the generation experiencing one of the greatest mental health crises ever in Colorado. She recently started her sophomore year of high school at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in Denver. At 15 years old she has lived through unprecedented times as a teenager and sometimes struggles with her mental health. 

“It's okay for it to weigh you down. You just can't let it stop you completely,” she told Rocky Mountain PBS when speaking about what she has learned about mental health care in the last few years. And she is not alone in her struggles.

“We have been experiencing chronic stress across society for the last almost three years now, and chronic stress has a real significant impact and a long standing impact on our mental health over time,” said Jessica Hawks, Ph.D., a clinical child and adolescent psychologist and the clinical director of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Hawks and other mental health professionals around Colorado are waiving the red flag, saying the state of youth mental health is still getting worse, not better. 

“[It's] pretty alarming,” she said. “Since the beginning of the pandemic to now, we've seen a doubling … in the rates of mental health concerns for youth.”

Children’s Hospital Colorado first sounded the alarm in May of 2021 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 severity of what kids were going through. 

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

Comparing numbers from the beginning of 2019 to the beginning of 2022, Children's Hospital saw a 103% increase in the number of patients who arrived in a crisis. In just the last year, the hospital saw a 23% increase of patients in crisis. While these numbers are alarming, Hawks said the there is another statistic that worries her more.

“Only about 22% of youth in the state of Colorado that need mental health services because of the significance of their mental health concerns are actually receiving the treatment that they need,” said Hawks. 

Children's Hospital Colorado says from 2019 to 2022 youth patients in a mental health crisis doubled. 

For Pitones those numbers track in her world. 

“There's at least one or two people in a friend group that … they have some type of depression or anxiety or, like, at least a plan of suicide,” said Pitones. 

She has faced some mental health challenges of her own, which started when she was having trouble with physical health. She was dealing with chronic back pain at a young age with a family history of arthritis hitting at the same time as a growth spurt. 

“So I had to go to Children's Hospital to get some … physical therapy. And I also had a therapist to talk to there. So it's just like, ‘Why is your mental health declining?’ Because I can't do this. I can't, you know, play my regular sports. I cannot play volleyball or soccer anymore because everything hurts,” Pitones explained to her therapist.

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

“I feel more energized to, like, actually get outside and try something even though I know it's going to hurt, but it's going to make me better,” said Pitones. 

Outside of her personal journey, this school year she is working on a project to help her peers. Pitones is on the Youth Action Board with Children’s Hospital Colorado mental health institute. This board consists of nearly 20 teens across the Denver-metro area who are interested in raising awareness and de-stigmatizing mental health issues. 

Pitones became involved last year and helped come up with plans to build a “wellness room” inside her school. 

“It's like a decompression space where, like, students can go in and … just relax and take a break,” said Pitones, “because school day is pretty long.”

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

The wellness room will be built in a space in the school’s library and include items like bean bag chairs and sound proof headphones. The hope is it becomes a place to take a break and keep students from completely breaking down. 

“As best as 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, like, a mental breakdown,’” Pitones explained.

This wellness room won’t be up and running until late October or November because they weren’t able to work on it this summer. However, Pitones is excited for students to use it and has heard they are eagerly waiting for it be open. 

“The point is you can decompress and go back into class with a better mindset and not just ditch the entire class and get a failing grade for the day in that class,” she said. 

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

“We consistently see increases in mental health concerns at this point in the school year, and that's because the return to school is just inherently stressful for everybody. There's going to be more academic pressures. You're around your peer group, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the situation,” Hawks explained. 

The other hurdle students will face this year is increasing expectations to “return to normal” when so much growth and development was missed. Outside of academic setbacks, especially depending on age, students missed out on socialization and the structure of in-person learning. 

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

“If you think about the young kids in school for second, third grade — their first couple of years in grade school was completely unlike anything any of us have ever experienced. So, they're actually reentering school almost for the first time,” said Hawks. 

While stopping stressors isn't always achievable, Hawks emphasized youth and parents there are actionable things they can do to truly 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 that youth should remember when they're going back to school is to get back to the basics. It's amazing what a difference all the basic health, hygiene sorts of things can have on our mental health,” said Hawks. “The number one thing that adults can do to support their kids 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 guilt over their child’s depression, anxiety or mental illness. She encourages parents to not focus on the guilt but on how they can help moving forward. 

“The really great thing about youth is that they are profoundly, positively impacted by the adults in their life,” said Hawks. “Pay attention to your kid, and ask them, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ And actually listen to what they're saying and then figure out a plan. If your child is struggling, get them the support that they need.”

For Pitones, she wants to tell kids to watch out for themselves and each other and know help is out there. She shared a story of when a friend was showing signs of concerning behavior — ditching class, not eating, hanging out with “the bad crowd” as she put it. Pitones and her friends talked to this girl and found out she had plans to harm herself. That’s when they made the hard decision to tell a teacher. 

“[They] had her pulled 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 that help?’” Pitones explained. “No, she was very relieved with us for us doing that.”

Pitones said that friend was able to find a therapist and just spoke to her recently. She is doing well and happily welcomed a new puppy with her family. 

Recent years have taught Pitones a lot about mental health, but most importantly the power of talking about the struggles and helping to take away the stigma of asking for help. 

“At least talking about it or making it known … that you're there for them, that's a very big help,” said Pitones. “[They’re] not going to be as afraid to reach out.”

Kate Pitones is helping to build a wellness room for her fellow classmates at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy. 

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 by dialing 988. You can also chat with the Lifeline.

Amanda Horvath is a managing producer with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can email her at amandahorvath@rmpbs.org

Jeremy Moore is a senior multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can email him at jeremymoore@rmpbs.org.

Kate Johnson is a video editor with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can email her at katejohnson@rmpbs.org