School officials are taking strides to combat higher numbers as anxiety rates increase among students and reported youth suicide rates rise in Tarrant County and throughout the state of Texas.
During the 2018-19 school year, Carroll ISD added four more intervention counselors and two more school psychologists. The district also initiated a Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer program training students to identify classmates who need additional mental health support. In addition, the district performed mental health screenings for the first time for all students in grades seven through 12.
Grapevine-Colleyville ISD took similar preventative steps. Last year, it also started Hope Squad programs at its secondary campuses. This year, GCISD has filled previously vacant counselor positions and provided continued mental health training.
Students on a national level are talking more about their mental health struggles, said Stephanie White, a licensed specialist in school psychology for Carroll ISD.
National research shows more than 7% of children ages 3-17 are diagnosed with anxiety, while 3.2% are diagnosed with depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10-34, according to the CDC.
In Tarrant County, suicide is the third-leading cause of death in all age groups, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Both CISD and GCISD say they are seeing an increase in mental health needs. CISD counselors typically perform about three interventions a day, CISD Counseling Coordinator Tammy Pulse said.
“The social [and]emotional needs of kiddos [have]increased in the last few years,” Pulse said. “We are seeing more kids who are struggling with anxiety and depression and suicidal ideation.”
Suffering in silence
Carroll ISD’s mental health screening gauges a student’s emotional wellbeing through a series of questions, Pulse said. Based on a student’s responses, counselors may provide extra support.
While the screenings identified students who were already known to counselors, they also brought awareness to the “silent sufferers,” Pulse said.
“It was really powerful information,” she said. “It did enable us to reach out to other kids who we had no idea were struggling. And so every single kid that we called down—it was 100%, we needed to talk to them.”
School psychologists provided 67% more students with counseling services during the 2018-19 school than during the 2017-18 school year, White said.
GCISD does screenings as well but on an as-needed basis, such as when a student reaches out with a concern. The district also emphasizes students form productive relationships with adults, whether it is a teacher greeting students at the classroom door or the administrative team welcoming children as they enter the campus.
“That way, the kids feel like they have a trusted adult in their classroom or down the hall, or wherever anyone can be a trusted adult,” said Emberly Hill, GCISD’s director of counseling. “There’s people that can help. There’s adults that care.”
Both districts pointed to increasing anxiety rates in students as a cause for concern.
“That’s probably the No. 1 trend we’re seeing,” Hill said.
Anxiety can stem from a variety of sources, from bad grades to social media, and reflect a lack of balance, Pulse said. Both districts are training students in social and emotional skills to help prevent anxiety from taking students into a crisis state.
“The better a student can connect with their peers by using those social skills that they have learned, the more connected they feel,” White said. “Therefore, they don’t feel as isolated and withdrawn from those around them or their environment. That is a very protective factor.”
Should students be suffering from anxiety, the best thing for them to do is let a counselor know, Hill said.
“There’s some simple skills that you can be taught that might help, some breathing techniques, that tend to help students when they’re struggling with anxiety,” she said. “If you learned a breathing technique and some mindfulness techniques that wouldn’t take but a minute—it really seems to help the kids.”
Mandatory identification training
While districts are using tools to help build mental strength and identify students with concerns, they are also training staff to be aware of student needs.
This so-called “mental health first aid” is designed to teach adults how to help adolescents who are experiencing mental health or addiction challenges.
“Just as school staff are trained in basic medical first aid, staff are also being trained to assist students who are showing signs of emotional distress and provide initial care,” White said in an email.
All Carroll Senior High School faculty will receive this training in September, according to Brittany Mulkey, a licensed school specialist in psychology. The plan is to provide the training districtwide, she said.
The state as a whole is also focusing on additional mental health training. Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new law in June increasing training in early identification and intervention for educators and other school professionals. The law also requires schools to teach students how to identify mental health issues in themselves or their classmates.
Once GCISD has a better idea of what the requirements look like, district counselors will start training teachers, Hill said. This will be in addition to the mandatory mental health training both districts require for all employees each year. Many teachers choose to complete that during the summer, she said.
More mental health resources
Beyond counselors, GCISD and CISD employ school resource officers—police officers trained to work in a school setting—to help protect students. SROs can help shield students against outside threats, but their main role is to establish relationships with students, Southlake Police Chief James Brandon said.
“Those SROs will get phone calls from a young man or woman who says, ‘Hey, Joe just got on Twitter and said he didn’t feel like living anymore.’ And we’re able to have Joe in our presence within five minutes or so to check on him,” Brandon said.
GCISD’s SROs have been through a Mental Health Peace Officer Class, which only adds to the value of SROs on campus, Detective Christina O’Rear said.
Should a student require services beyond the district’s ability, there are local and state resources to help.
Last year, My Health My Resources of Tarrant County, an independent and local government unit, created a texting service crisis hotline to help better serve young people going through mental health challenges.
MHMR also has a program called Crisis Respite for those ages 13-17. The program allows young people to stay up to 30 days in an MHMR facility.
If a young person is going through a hard time, the best thing for them to do is let a counselor or an adult know, Hill said.
“We don’t want the kids to struggle,” she said. “It’s important to have those conversations. And a student—if they’re not talking about it, they can’t get any help with whatever issue they’re struggling with.”
Additional reporting by Emily Davis