By CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd

DENVER (CBS4) – One of the most ambitious mental health bills in state history is making its way through the legislature. The goal of the legislation is to help kids struggling with pandemic-related depression and anxiety.

Even before COVID-19, Colorado had a mental health crisis among kids. Suicide is the number one cause of death among kids ages 10-18 in Colorado, and Children’s Hospital says, since the pandemic started last year, it’s seen a 10% increase in emergency room visits by kids having suicidal thoughts.

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Elsa Cavender, a sophomore at Douglas County High School, told a House committee she is one of the lucky ones who beat the odds.

“When I was in 8th grade, I stood on top of an eight story building and contemplated my life. Looking back, I am extremely grateful and lucky to be here today, but there are many adolescents who are not as lucky as I am.”

Too many kids, she says, don’t get the mental health treatment they need. Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet says that need is greater than ever after a pandemic that upended their lives.

“And we’re about to flip the switch on them and say ‘Hey, in a couple more months we’re going to go back to normal.'”

She fears many kids may not be ready to go back to normal. Michaelson Jenet introduced a bill with Rep. Kevin Van Winkle which would give every school-aged kid in Colorado access to a mental health screening, and if needed, three therapy sessions, all paid for by the state.

“It’s a risk free trial,” said Michaelson Jenet. “They get three visits to see if therapy is something they want to pursue.”

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The cost is $9 million if 25,000 kids take advantage of all three sessions.

“If I need to come back begging for more money, you better believe I will come back begging for more money,” Michaelson Jenet said.

The cost of doing nothing, she says, is far greater.

“Today is the anniversary of Columbine, and we know what adds to the possibility of school violence is putting kids with deep stress and deep trauma and deep anxiety into a pressure cooker and letting them go.”

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The bill, she says, will be a “game changer.”

Cavender agrees, “I do think this bill will save lives and help so many people.”

Here’s how the screenings will work: The state will create an online portal where kids can fill out a confidential screening. The goal is to open the portal by the end of May. If the screening indicates they need counseling, they’ll be referred to a therapist in their parents’ insurance network if possible, in case they need more than the three free sessions. Depending on demand, Michaelson Jenet says, some kids may be paired with an out-of-state therapist for telehealth visits.

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She says the state will work with rural and low income communities to make sure kids have access to a computer and the internet for telehealth. The bill passed its first committee Tuesday 11-1.

Shaun Boyd