Why a new bill that reshapes Colorado recovery support services matters

Sona Dimidjian, director and founding faculty fellow of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute at CU Boulder, testified before legislators this week in support of HB21-1021 — a bill that may not be top of mind for many Coloradans.

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CU Boulder Today caught up with Dimidjian to find out why this bill — which requires the Department of Human Services to develop a procedure to approve recovery support services — matters. The bill also specifies that approved peer support services can be covered under Medicaid, among other shifts.

Dimidjian, Sapp Family Endowed Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence and professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, testified Tuesday before the Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services committee.

First of all, what is the Crown Institute?

The primary mission of the Crown Institute is to promote the wellness of young people and the systems and adults who support them through interdisciplinary research-practice partnerships.

Why is this bill so important now?

We are facing a mental health crisis in Colorado, and the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating it. I have dedicated my career to finding effective and accessible ways to support mental health and wellness. What I have learned in the past 20 years is that without peer support services in a variety of settings, we simply will not have the workforce to care for the mental health of Colorado.

In short, our research suggests that it is critical to elevate the voices of peers, whether that be in high schools or in urban or rural parts of the state, to empower one another and their communities. Applying simple, science-backed skills with peer support can promote ongoing recovery and mental health and wellness.

Can you elaborate on the research you’ve done that is relevant to this bill?

At the Crown Institute, many of our studies center the knowledge and wisdom that exists in communities; this emphasis has not been evident in a lot of scientific research. Some examples of ongoing studies in the Crown Institute include those that focus on peer support for new and expectant parents in prenatal and community settings and for young women in high schools. We have learned some important lessons from this work.

  • First, peer support services work. For example, we co-designed a peer support program called Alma with and for new and expectant moms who are depressed, anxious or stressed. The peers are the heart of the Alma program–moms in the community who have experienced depression themselves and support other moms facing similar challenges. We have conducted studies in the context of partnerships with Kaiser Permanente Colorado in the Boulder/Denver region, in Aurora with the Aurora Mental Health Center and STRIDE, and with community partners Valley Settlement in the Roaring Fork Valley and El Centro AMISTAD in Boulder County. We also are working now with Lifespan Local in Southwest Denver.. Across our studies, peers have provided support to nearly 150 moms, and our research suggests that overall moms experience significant improvement in depression, anxiety, and stress. We also are working in partnership with Boulder Valley School District to study a peer facilitated program focused on body image and leadership among young women. To date, nearly 500 high school students have been engaged in those studies.

  • Second, peer services respond to what people want. Our research shows that people want to access support from someone who has walked in their shoes, who knows their community, speaks their language, shares their culture. Peers are an essential component in what I think of as a broad and diverse ecosystem of mental health resources that we must create if we are going to promote mental health equity and give young people and families the best chance to thrive.

  • Third, the unique value of peers needs to be recognized. I was excited to represent CU Boulder and the Crown Institute in support of HB 21-2021. I do not want the compelling evidence from years of research to live only in academic journals and conferences. I know that long-term change in our state’s mental health system requires action in the domains of policy and finance. This bill takes a critical step into the future.

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