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Texas kids struggling with mental health, self-harm as school starts back

As students head back to school, many parents and professionals are concerned about an increase in mental health challenges, specifically self-harm.
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As students head back to school, many parents and professionals are concerned about an increase in mental health challenges, specifically self-harm.

For mental health resources and support, call or text 9-8-8 or visit the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline website

Payton Carter is 19 years old and about to start her second year at Texas Tech University. She’s enjoying her college experience, but school hasn’t always been a positive place for her.

In middle school, she said she struggled with being bullied on top of the hard and emotional changes you go through at that age.

“When you were an adolescent, your problems felt like life or death,” Carter said. 

Looking for social connections, she turned to Instagram and Tumblr. She said she scrolled through social media with little supervision. A girl she didn’t know started following her, and she followed back.

“She started posting very graphic content about self-harming,” Carter recalled. “I was a very impressionable young girl. So I self-harmed for the first time. I was in the fifth grade.”

The average age for starting to self-harm is 13, according to one often-cited academic study that analyzed the behavior in over 40 countries.

Carter’s friends found out and told her parents, who helped her go to therapy. But she said she still struggled with self-harm off and on through high school.

“Almost every time something went wrong, or something bad happened, that's what I would turn to,” Carter said. “I don't know why I did it.”

She said she now thinks her unchecked social media use likely worsened the mental health challenges she needed help with.

It’s estimated that around 17% of people will self-harm in their lifetime. It’s most common among adolescents.

Self-harming is not a mental health disorder, but it could correlate with one, like anxiety or depression. Known cases of those afflictions increased by 23% for Texas kids in 2020, according to data released in August by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. More than 500,000 young Texans were diagnosed with anxiety or depression that year.

Anecdotally, self-harming behaviors also increased in Lubbock during the pandemic.

Cameron Brown is an assistant professor of couple, marriage, and family therapy at Texas Tech. He also practices at Desert Sky Family Therapy. He said the emotional effects of the pandemic could lead to self-harming behavior.

“The number one reason that individuals may participate in non-suicidal self-harm is to alleviate some type of overwhelming or negative emotion,” Brown said.

He said it can also be a type of self-directed anger.

Bethany Luna is another therapist in Lubbock who works with marginalized youth, at Phoenix Moon Healing. She said since the pandemic began, she has seen more kids with depression and anxiety about school and their futures. In her experience, the severity and consistency of self-harm has recently changed.

“Before, it might be, like, ‘I don't really want to be here,” Luna said about what she hears from patients. “But now it's like, ‘I'm going to steal my parents' pills and take them.’”

She said she has also seen a concerning increase in middle schoolers self-harming together.

“Because if you hurt yourself, then I'm gonna hurt myself,” Luna said. “And I maybe had heard that one time before, but this was escalated to a pretty drastic experience.”

These behaviors can be socially contagious, which is why knowing about them is important.

If someone you know is hurting themselves, it’s helpful to make them feel supported and not shamed. Finding healthier emotional releases can make a difference.

Payton Carter has worked on coping mechanisms that help, like journaling. She said she also looks for joy in everyday moments.

“Getting to listen to a new Taylor Swift album, getting to talk to my friends in our car for, like, five hours. You know, just small things in life that make it worth it,” Carter said. “All of those things are reasons why I don't self-harm anymore.”

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Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at saselfwa@ttu.edu. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.

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Sarah Self-Walbrick