As pandemic grinds on, Texas students increasingly feel alone and scared, and some are thinking about suicide

ByBY MELISSA B. TABOADA, The Texas Tribune
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
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The CDC says community level efforts and health strategies to address these mental health conditions should prioritize young adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers.

HOUSTON, Texas -- Shea Wiedemeyer's depression crept in slowly.

The high school freshman had struggled with some anxiety before schools shut down abruptly in March, but in the isolation of the pandemic, cut off from daily interaction with friends and teachers at McCallum High School in Austin, the feelings snowballed.

"I feel stuck in this sort of in between age where I'm old enough to see current events that I'm able to understand their impact and have opinions on them, but I'm unable to really do anything about it," the 14-year-old said. "It's a very discouraging feeling and it leaves me feeling pretty hopeless about the future, both my own and that of the world."

Wiedemeyer is part of a wave of students' nationwide grappling with mental health issues spawned by the loneliness, fears and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Texas counseling clinics and hospitals report large increases in students seeking help for anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. Students are wrestling with their loss of freedom, fears of contracting COVID-19 and grief for loved ones who died from the virus, experts say, and the state needs to step up its efforts to help them.

"It's really the perfect storm for whatever causes a child anxiety," Jessica Knudsen, CEO of the San Antonio-based Clarity Child Guidance Center, which offers in-person and outpatient services to children in South Texas. "It's really created stressors, no matter what your trigger is."

There are few hard numbers available on the pandemic's mental health effects on adolescents, but emerging information sheds light on disturbing trends.

Last month, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis found a significant increase in pediatric mental health-related emergency room visits, often the first point of care for children needing mental health care. Beginning in April, mental health-related visits to a large sampling of emergency rooms in 47 states increased 24% among children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for those 12 to 17 compared to 2019.

A June study of 3,300 U.S. high schoolers by America's Promise Alliance showed 30% of young people said they were feeling unhappy or depressed more often.

Emerging research from other countries, as well as long-term data on the effect of other community disasters and prior epidemics, "suggest that the mental health toll of COVID-19 and its associated burdens on youth will be significant and long lasting," said Sharon Hoover, professor of child adolescent psychiatry and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "We anticipate increases in depression, anxiety, trauma and grief, and more demand for an array of mental health services and supports for children and families."

Texas districts typically have school guidance counselors licensed and trained in trauma-informed practices, but they spend the bulk of their time on academics, juggling students' schedules and keeping them on track for graduation. Students with mental health needs are often referred to therapists off campus. Few schools have campus-based licensed medical professionals who are equipped to provide long-term mental health care.

The video in this post is from a previous story.


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