Anna Gallagher, an 18-year-old senior at Leander High School, said she was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and a generalized anxiety disorder two years ago.
“If you had met me 2 1/2 years ago, you never would have guessed that I was severely depressed,” she said. “You would have had no idea that I was cutting myself every day or abusing drugs and alcohol. I was pretty much the picture of a well-adjusted kid.”
Gallagher was invited to speak as part of a Leander ISD mental health forum hosted April 17 by the district’s counseling services.
Since August 2016, nine students in LISD have died, according to district officials. Many on campus have linked some of those deaths to potential suicides; however, the district was not able to confirm those concerns. But in response, the district held the mental health presentation in April to offer available school and community resources as well as advice for parents, students and community members.
Nationwide, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for ages 10-24, said Tiffany Allen, director of expanded access at Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, which provides public health resources for area residents. But in Texas, it is the second-leading cause.
“Get to know your kids,” Gallagher said at the LISD event. “Talk to them daily and really listen to what they tell you, and they might surprise you.”
When a campus experiences a crisis situation, a team of school counselors, social workers and licensed school psychology specialists provide support for impacted students and staff, LISD spokesperson Jennifer Bailey said.
“Typically, the full crisis team is on the campus for several days with a smaller group available to follow up with individuals in the days after the initial response,” Bailey said. “The director of counseling services works with the campus administration to determine when crisis services are no longer required on a campus.”
On March 31, Superintendent Dan Troxell sent a letter to LISD families about available resources in the district as well as the mental health issues in the community.
“Mental health concerns impact communities nationwide, and unfortunately, our students are not immune,” he said. “The safety and Well-being of students are always our highest priorities, and we continue to support those dealing with mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety and suicide ideation.”
Gallagher said she suffered for months from panic attacks and waves of depression. She told her mother after being caught drinking at a party. She began taking antidepressants and attending therapy soon after.
“It’s a battle every single day, and it will be for the rest of my life,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of my illness, but it’s not necessarily something I tell people at parties.”
Monica Kelly, a clinical social worker, said professionals look for multiple signs that show a marked change in one’s functioning over a period of two weeks or more.
With depression, some emotional signs are feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, irritability or frustration, or loss of interest in normal activities.
“This is one that we see commonly in children as well as adults,” Kelly said. “This isn’t to say someone who loses interest previously in soccer is now interested in something different. It is an overall loss of interest in all activities.”
Christina Hollander, lead counselor at Cedar Park High School, discussed stress and anxiety.
“Stress is something that you’re feeling at the time of an event, or pressure,” she said. “Typically, that stress goes away after you deal with whatever that situation is, or tension that a person is experiencing, whereas anxiety can be more lingering, can be more focused on specific events.”
Within LISD, school counselors can act as first contact for students and parents as well as provide short-term counseling services. The district also has a Chemical Abuse Prevention Program and a Family Services Team through which social workers can provide counseling to those struggling with issues that significantly impact learning.
LISD Director of Counseling Services Steve Clark said the district’s approach to providing counseling services includes addressing mental health with classroom guidance, school activities and individual student feedback. As the need for care increases, students can be referred to specific district, local or county resources.
Gallagher is a member of Amare Outreach, a peer-to-peer nonprofit program started by Leander High School students Jared Bouloy and Dana Pierce. Bouloy said the program focuses on storytelling and destigmatizing mental health by allowing students to post anonymous testimonials on the group’s website, www.amareoutreach.org, and by members speaking to a variety of groups at school, church and local events.
In the classroom, Bailey said counselors can provide lessons in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and decision-making.
Starting this fall, Troxell said the district plans to launch a mental health and positive peer-to-peer relationship curriculum for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Communication is key
Counselors, students and social workers stressed the need for communication with students in a safe environment.
“Create a safe space for them to communicate,” said Haley Simmons, clinical social worker. “You do that just by focusing on listening and not lecturing or passing judgment on your child.”
Even though it can be uncomfortable, Allen said people need to ask if someone has considered killing themselves and if they have made a plan.
“The reason we don’t ask, ‘Are you planning on hurting yourself?’ is, for someone who’s been depressed for a long time and they’ve been in pain for a long time, the thought of dying may not be hurting themselves, that may be an end to the pain,” Allen said.
External stimuli can also lead to mental health issues. Brandon Evans, senior director of student support with the district, reviewed the schools’ policies for bullying prevention.
“We’re just not getting the information or it’s not being told, and then somebody will say, ‘Oh it’s been happening for a long time,’” he said. “Unless the assistant principal or teacher or that person knows, they can’t actually take action on it.”
Some signs of bullying include unexplainable injuries; lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry; frequent headaches or stomachaches; feeling sick or faking illness; or feeling helpless.
Evans said a committee meets to create action plans for changing
“Technology is changing. Students are changing,” he said. “Very little is done face to face or person to person. It’s done through social media, and that’s the biggest trend that we see is most of the [bullying]happening through cyber and is done through different forms of social media.”
Mary Ann Kluga, senior coordinator for the chemical abuse program, said another external influence is drug and alcohol use. She stressed the importance of parents talking with their children often and asking open-ended questions.
Allen said asking the question, “Have you thought of killing yourself?” could lead to a “yes” answer.
“The next thing to do is still stay calm, still listen,” Allen said. “You may not just focus on that; you may listen to other parts of their story, but you do want to ask, ‘Have they developed a plan?’ ‘Have they really been thinking about this?’”
She said the next step is to contact local crisis services.
Gallagher also had a message to those who think they have a mental illness.
“I’d tell them that it takes so much more strength to ask for help than it does to keep it hidden. It doesn’t matter how far gone you are; you’re not beyond repair,” she said. “There is help, and there is hope.”