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COVID-19 Brought A Mental Health Crisis For Texas Teens. Billions In Federal Aid Could Help

The pandemic has prompted an uptick in mental health crises among teenagers.
Cristobella Durrette
The pandemic has prompted an uptick in mental health crises among teenagers.

The following story contains references to self harm. If you or someone you know is contemplating self harm, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Part of more than $2 billion in federal funding on its way to Texas school districts will go to help address teen mental health — which has gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.

In total, Texas school districts are poised to get more than $11 billion through the American Rescue Plan, a stimulus package signed into law by President Biden earlier this month. Twenty percent of that will be designated for three purposes: helping vulnerable students, catching up kids with pandemic learning loss, and social and emotional wellbeing.

Josette Saxton, a mental health policy expert with Texans Care for Children, said that money could be “pretty huge” in addressing the increasing number of students struggling with their mental health during the pandemic.

“Districts will have the opportunity to use some of that funding to address the social, emotional needs of their kids,” Saxton said. “The question there is, do they know what to do with it?”

State lawmakers previously took steps to address student mental health in the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting, in which 10 people were killed. Those were among the first considerable steps Texas has taken to addressing mental health in schools, Saxton said. The legislation mandated that schools have their own plans in place to address the mental health of students.

“Schools should have practices and procedures related to mental health prevention and intervention, substance use prevention and intervention, suicide prevention, intervention and postvention,” Saxton said.

Another $4 billion from the American Rescue Plan will also go towards addressing mental health for the general public through community health clinics.

COVID-19 has made a bad situation worse in Texas, which scored second-to-last nationally in access to mental health care for both kids and adults in a 2021 Mental Health America report.

For students like 16-year-old Alice Murphey, the pandemic has made it harder to cope with the workload and pressures of a competitive grading system.

Alice, who attends Dawson High School in Pearland, wanted to know what it was like for her fellow students. So she created a peer survey to address mental health.

“It would overly stress me out, and I felt that a lot of people felt the same way,” Alice said.

She sent a Google form to students — more than 500 responded to questions — which asked things like how many advanced classes they took, and how many hours they slept at night. Eleven percent of students said they slept three hours or less.

But answers to her final question shocked Alice most of all: How often do you have thoughts about suicide or self-harm?

"Twelve percent of people said, ‘often’ — so they think about it very often,” Alice said. “And then 6% of 526 responses said that they ‘always’ think about suicide or self-harm.”

Dr. Jon Stevens, a teen psychiatrist with the Menninger Clinic, said those findings aren’t surprising — especially considering how much he’s seen teen mental health worsen over the past year.

“To me the suicidal thoughts and prevalence of that is consistent with some larger studies of insurance claims,” Stevens said.

One recent study by insurance claims repository Fair Health found the share of mental health claims for high school-aged kids doubled in March and April of 2020, around the time the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his own office, Stevens said he’s seen the need for help double.

“I think young people have proven especially vulnerable to mental health issues, especially related to COVID-19 and the pandemic,” Stevens said.

School closures, remote learning and isolating from friends are stressors that disproportionately impact teens, he said.

“Then you talk about the lack of access to quality mental health care not only here in Houston but beyond,” Stevens said, adding that there aren't enough pediatric therapists, psychiatrists or school counselors to go around.

Glenda Dawson High School in Pearland, on March 23, 2021.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Glenda Dawson High School in Pearland, on March 23, 2021.

In an emailed statement, the Pearland Independent School District told Houston Public Media that it has made counselors available online and trained student leaders to support each other's mental health.

“Each high school campus has a wellness student group, aka suicide prevention student group, where students learn about resources and how to help peers and others in need,” a district spokesperson said in the email.

But tenth-grader Alice said what would ease a lot of anxiety for her is if they modified the GPA policy. and if she didn’t have to take as many advanced classes to stay competitive with her peers.

All of that was stressful before the pandemic, she said. Now it’s even worse.

“I feel like the only good parts of school are gone,” Murphey said, “Because I somewhat enjoyed going to school here and now I just completely hate it.”

This story was produced by Houston Public Media.

Elizabeth Trovall | Houston Public Media