Darlene Terryberry of Henderson, Nevada, lost her beloved granddaughter Angel in the fall of 2020.
“We were so close in so many ways; I wish she had been able to talk. We'd be sitting together today,” Terryberry told CBS News.
The high school senior is one of 30 students within the Clark County School District who died by suicide since the pandemic began.
“I think the pandemic, the online schooling, you know, that isolation was probably a contributing factor,” said Terryberry. “I'm not saying that it was the only factor.”?
Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control shows more than a third of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless during the past year.
“We have to be sure that our educators and our schools have the resources they need to take care of the kids no matter what their age,” said Senator Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada.
Senators Rosen and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have introduced a bipartisan bill, the Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Act, to provide federal funding through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to public schools K through 12. Currently, that money is only available for colleges and universities.
“Anybody that works in a school should be trained to recognize the signs of distress for the students that would be in their age group at that school,” said Rosen.
If authorized, the SAMHSA grant funding could be used to expand mental health services in grade schools from suicide prevention training to using telehealth to conduct screenings, as well as other specialized programs.
“Oftentimes it is just even knowing even knowing that there is an issue there,” said Senator Murkowski. “If a child doesn't feel comfortable sharing this with a parent or another adult. If they if they don't even know how to ask.”
That was the experience of Claire Rhyneer of Eagle River, Alaska, who kept her pain hidden from her family for around five years.
“It was dark. It was really difficult. It was tough, but more than anything, it was governed by confusion,” she explained. “I kept doubting my experience and at the time I was self-harming.”
Rhyneer, now 19, found a voice and healing through the Anchorage-based organization “Mental Health Advocacy Through Storytelling” known as MHATS. The youth led group facilitates conversations on mental health and helps participants share their own stories of mental health struggles and recovery.
“It's very cathartic; it's very therapeutic to talk about your feelings and to talk about what you went through,” Rhyneer said.
Now a youth mental health advocate herself, Rhyneer testified before the Senate Health Committee about the need for more federal support of mental health resources. She hopes the bill proposed by Senators Murkowski and Rosen would help fund programs similar to MHATS in schools nationwide.
“If one family, just one doesn’t have to go through the pain and anguish that my family has gone through,” said Darlene Terryberry who also stressed the need for urgent action around this issue.
Senators Rosen and Murkowski say they hope votes can be taken on their bill this year.
“It's been too many years since we have seen a really strong focus on mental health and behavioral health matters,” Senator Murkowski said of the new congressional push to pass mental health legislation.
“Our kids can't wait,” said Senator Rosen.
For its part, the Clark County School District has implemented an anonymous online system to report threats of school violence and friends at risk of suicide, self-harm.
They’ve also added weekend hours for a special hotline for students who need to speak to a counselor or social worker (702) 799-6632.