Prepared remarks: Attorney General Phil Weiser on Announcing Healthy Youth/Strong Colorado Fund with UnitedHealth (April 20, 2021)
Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation and Pat Riddell—and everyone involved with the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation—for your dedication to Colorado communities. Let me particularly acknowledge Michelle Smith, the Executive Director of the Foundation, whose leadership serves western Colorado very well. We look forward to supporting your efforts and dedication to support underserved communities and access to healthcare.
We also thank Rocky Mountain Health Plans and UnitedHealth Group for this extraordinary contribution to our Colorado communities. I am thrilled to be partnering with you in this important work and am grateful for your leadership, generosity, and vision to invest in Colorado on this crucially important work.
I want to start by recognizing that today is the 22nd anniversary of the Columbine High School tragedy. We’ve continued our conversations over the years about how we keep schools safe and provide resources for young people. The Safe2Tell program in our office, for example, provides an anonymous tip-line to report threats to students and is a direct response to that tragedy, providing important strategy for avoiding future ones. The Healthy Youth/Strong Colorado Fund we are announcing today will provide real support mental health and wellness programs and opportunities for youth so that they can live safer and healthier lives. Today’s announcement is a tribute to those youth who have lost their lives and for those whose lives have changed forever.
This public-private partnership reflects UnitedHealth’s commitment to investing in Western Colorado and mental health. After receiving a settlement in litigation, the company had a choice on how to best invest these funds. I am pleased that United Health, which purchased Rocky Mountain Health Plans in 2017, is honoring its long-standing commitment to Colorado and collaborating with our office on how to invest in the future of Colorado youth.
The $30 million investment we are announcing today promises to change the lives of thousands of Coloradans. By enabling the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation to invest $25 million with community partners, including those who can support STEM education, the Foundation will be positioned to change the trajectory and create opportunity for many Coloradans. And the $5 million Healthy Youth/Strong Colorado Fund promises to support improved mental health for young Coloradans and decrease the use of the criminal justice system to address behavioral health challenges — now and in the future.
Even before the pandemic, teen mental health and suicide prevention were top concerns of our office. Through our administration of Safe2Tell, we know all too well how suicide is the leading cause of death of those between 12-24 years old. During the pandemic, the top report we have received is threats of suicide and it has risen as a share of tips to Safe2Tell compared to the 2019-2020 school year. With increased isolation, stress, loss, and anxiety, the pandemic has spurred increased substance abuse, overdose deaths, and pediatric emergency room visits related to mental health issues. The investments we announce today will enable valued community partners to provide youth with valuable outlets and support services, thereby decreasing risky behavior. I would highlight Sources of Strength in particular, which is in schools across the state supporting youth, empowering them with a powerful peer support model. I also am proud that we will be partnering with The Center on Colfax and Rainbow who empower and support LGBTQ youth, who are at a higher risk of struggles with mental health and suicide.
We also know that youth mental health connects to the school-to-prison pipeline and the need to avoid youth involvement in the criminal justice system. Last year, our office provided $500,000 in grants to organizations around the state that are actively engaged in work to support youth and prevent youth criminal legal system involvement. Additionally, we recently released a report on work happening around the state, with recommendations, for how we can do just that as a community.
Along these lines: we are proud that through this partnership, we will get to work even more closely with an organization that models best practice for supporting youth and driving positive outcomes: Boys and Girls Clubs in Colorado. They are represented today by Bud Taylor, the CEO of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Club. The Clubs’ work is the model for youth empowerment and support—guiding youth regardless of background, toward the bright futures they deserve.
Finally, we are thrilled to be announcing the start of an outdoor-education-based diversion program with three members of the Colorado Youth Corps Association: the Mile High Youth Corps, the Western Colorado Conservation Corps, and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. Jeff Roberts is here today representing this impressive organization. The corps knows that our young people are more than the biggest mistake they have made, and they know that by providing mental health support and job training, we can help youth get back on the right path.
The specific grants we announce today will make a difference and pave the way for a proactive response to the mental health crisis we see taking shape during the pandemic. These are all leading edge and trusted organizations who are supporting vulnerable youth and enhancing their opportunities for a promising future.
These powerful partnerships send this message loud and clear to our Colorado youth: We support you. We see you. We believe in you. And we will never, ever give up on you.