The number of McKinney ISD students expressing mental health concerns, such as depression, suicidal thoughts and acts of self-harm, is increasing across all grade levels, according to recent data.

During the 2018-19 school year, the district reported nearly 600 incidences of students expressing some type of mental health crisis, as compared with 370 reports from the previous year.

This uptick follows a national trend showing more cases of depression, anxiety and suicides among school-aged children. More than 7% of U.S. 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.

“Growing up is stressful,” said Douglas Kiel, a professor at The University of Texas at Dallas. “The stresses of where one fits in the world of high school are probably not going to change, but what we can change is making people more willing to talk about these things and having a greater consciousness on everyone’s part.”

MISD Superintendent Rick McDaniel said the district has a responsibility to provide support.

A combination of new services, resources and staff members has been added for parents, students and teachers in recent years. Instead of launching new initiatives to address the increase in reports, McDaniel said the district will continue perfecting the ones it has.

“What we should do and how we should do it is ongoing, but the thing I do know is that we have a moral imperative to do something,” McDaniel said.

Right on trend

MISD started tracking the number of students expressing mental health concerns in 2016. A report is filed any time students mention suicidal thoughts, inflict self-injuries or threaten to hurt themselves and others.

During the 2016-17 school year, the district filed 231 crisis reports, or about 1.3 reports per school day. Last year, the district had 596, or about 3.4 reports per school day, according to district data.

“The numbers reflect that we are doing a better job of identifying students who are struggling and need support,” said Cody Cunningham, MISD chief communications and support services officer. “The other part is that we are seeing an increase in situations where students feel like they are in a crisis and need some immediate support.”

The No. 1 concern at MISD is anxiety, said Jennifer Akins, district senior director of guidance and counseling. The second-biggest concern is depression, followed by cases of students struggling with two or more different issues, such as anxiety and depression, she said.

“There is no question that when you look at the pressures that students are faced with today, it is much more complicated and much more difficult, in my opinion, to be a middle school or high school student than it was 20 years ago,” Cunningham said.

Many mental health experts attribute the national increase in depression and anxiety to the increased use of social media and cell phones. Students are always interacting with each other, and they are dealing with social stressors outside of school, during evenings and weekends, Cunningham said.

In addition to academic pressures, Akins said, mental health-related incidents peak during transition years, such as when students switch from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school.

“Even with a decrease in stigma around mental health and more openness in general, I think there still might be kids that aren’t speaking up or we don’t know about,” Akins said.

Breaking the stigma

Mental illness is not only prevalent in school-aged kids, Kiel said. About 20% of the U.S. population has a mental illness, and among those, depression is the most common, he said.

Experts believe the best way to help people experiencing depression, especially school-aged children, is by letting them know they are not alone, Kiel said. The best way to do that is by breaking the stigma surrounding mental health, he said.

“Mental health and brain health are able to impact kids from any background at any point in life, and so these are things that aren’t concentrated at one particular place or school or one particular type of student,” Akins said.

Many students are embarrassed to speak about mental health, so they don’t tell others when they need help, Kiel said. Because of this, it is important to know the signs of depression, he said.

The biggest sign of depression is becoming disengaged from society, Kiel said. He suggests watching for children who isolate themselves or stop participating in their usual activities.

In addition to the spike in depression, suicides are also becoming more common among young adults, according to recent reports.

“Since 2000, suicide rates have been going up ... especially [in] young women, and that’s completely abnormal,” Kiel said.

Mental health resources

MISD has a variety of resources available to support students.

In 2016, the district hired a team of three IMPACT counselors. The acronym stands for “Individuals Maximizing Positive Advocacy for Children and Teens.” Last year, the counseling team was doubled to six members, who are often called crisis counselors. One of these counseling positions was recently converted to provide service year-round.

“[These counselors] have a role to support students that maybe are experiencing transitions, that have unique stressors in their life and maybe a mental health concern,” Akins said. “They provide an extra layer of support beyond the support that’s provided by the school counselors.”

They meet with students individually or in small groups to help them through their stressful situations.

Last school year, counselors had  3,746 one-on-one meetings with high school students, 323 meetings with middle school students and 72 meetings with elementary school students, according to the district.

“We have more kids coming to counselors, and that’s what we want because when they bottle it up, that’s usually when things just get worse,” Cunningham said.

Other resources are available through various district partnerships.

Last year, the district partnered with Children’s Health to offer telebehavioral service and virtual counseling services at some campuses for students who need to talk with a professional during the school day.

“There are students who are comfortable walking into a counselor’s office and saying, ‘I’m going through something really difficult right now, and I need some help,’ but there are a lot of other students who may not be comfortable with that approach,” Cunningham said. “The key is to provide students with as many avenues as possible.”

The district has also added staff training on topics such as trauma, stress management, cyberbullying and more, Akins said. All high school health classes now include the Adolescent Depression Awareness Program to teach students about depression.

The district also works with Texas A&M Commerce, which provides counseling clinics and a series of free counseling sessions to MISD employees and students.

“We are really trying to engage parents and help them not only with an awareness, but with strategies that they can use to help their kids,” Akins said.

Another major focus is MISD’s Lives Kind initiative, which rolled out last year to encourage students and staff members to act with kindness.

“Academics [are] important, but I know without the social and emotional well-being of our students, academics won’t happen,” McDaniel said. “It is important to me that we take care of the whole child, and not just the academic piece, because some of those children might not have that social and emotional piece at home.”

Editor's note: If you or someone you know is in need of immediate crisis support, call LifePath Systems' 24-hour hotline at 877-422-5939.