Mental health picture for North Texas kids is grim, but there is a silver lining – MMHPI – Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute
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Mental health picture for North Texas kids is grim, but there is a silver lining

This opinion article was originally published by the Dallas Morning News on December 8, 2023.

It is heartbreaking, although not surprising, to learn that our kids are struggling with their mental health. A recent report by Children’s Health is just a confirmation of a national trend previously reported by the Centers for Disease Control.

The 2023 Beyond ABC: Assessing Children’s Well-Being in North Texas, a biennial report that gives insights to health care workers and policymakers in Dallas, Collin, Cooke, Denton, Fannin, Grayson and Tarrant counties, revealed that mental health is the leading concern for children, including a rise in suicide ideation, and anxiety driven by social media, global events and gun violence.

A staggering 22% of middle and high school students contemplated suicide in 2021. The suicide rate has been steadily rising since 1999, notes the report.

“We’re seeing behavioral health concerns at lower and lower ages, so things that we might have seen in sixth grade we now see in third grade,” said Timothy Bray, director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research at the University of Texas at Dallas who participated in the report.

But, there is a silver lining, however. Mental health experts agree the solutions are within reach. They already have the tools, they said, they just need to connect them to the right places.

“With behavioral health, like many other chronic diseases, early intervention matters,” Bray told us. Early detection in mental health is critical, in the same way a regular blood test can detect high cholesterol and prevent heart disease.

Right now, most mental illnesses are not detected until eight to 10 years after symptoms emerge. With early detection, said Andy Keller, president and CEO of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, families can realize there is a mental health issue with their kid before it is too late.

There is also more funding available thanks to $11.68 billion approved by the Legislature. Now public schools can take advantage of programs like the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine, or TCHATT, that can provide access to mental services.

Other schools are already ramping up their efforts for early detection. Anna ISD, for example, has licensed counselors on each campus who can make referrals. Plano ISD has crisis intervention teams, and Dallas ISD is working on expanding its services.

As for the why this is happening, many psychologists note that this trend predates the rise of social media. But today we have kids constantly exposed to online messaging with no downtime, and there has been research indicating a rise in mental health problems that correlates with a rise in social media use. Our hyper-competitive focus is not helping as well, notes Keller. At some point, we just need to allow children to “spend time with their friends and learn how to be a kid.”

This report must be taken as a cry for help and a call to action. We have not done a good job of treating children’s mental health and this needs to change. The future of Texas’ kids is on the line.

View the article on Dallas Morning News.