HISD students combat range of mental health issues amid pandemic

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Inside Chandler Jones' converted home classroom, it's easy to see that this Lamar High School student is organized and motivated, but a year ago, her outlook was different.

"Stressed, obviously. Overwhelmed, really, because it was completely new," said the 11th grader.

Her emotions took a deep dive as the pandemic shut down classrooms and forced her into virtual school.

"I think I definitely got to points where it just felt like too much. My outlets are simply crying," she said. "Like, I would just go cry. It's like, you can cry for five minutes, but then you have to get back to work."

She's able to smile about it now, but for many of her peers, those dark feelings got worse.

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And they are not alone, according to CEO of Beal Behavioral Health Dr. Janice Beal.

"I saw lot of depression because when things change, and you can't control [it], they just started taking it inwardly," she said. "So, those who may not have had mental health concerns started to exhibit them as the time progressed."

Consider the new stressors in the lives of our youth; loss of school structure, social life and organized activities.

The new stress of food insecurity for students who relied on school meals, along with the fear of an unknown virus.

All of this, on top of peer bullying and academic pressure that never went away.

"Even though kids aren't in school, the violence is still there, the harm is still there," said co-founder of the organization Sandy Hook Promise Nicole Hockley.

Her son, Dylan, was killed during the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Now, she works to keep a close eye on the mental health of students across the country.

The Sandy Hook Promise partnered with the Houston Independent School District in 2018 to launch the 'Say Something Anonymous Reporting System.'

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The program is in 285 HISD schools, available to 110,000 students who have been trained to use the mobile app.

The app is connected to a crisis hotline center operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Over the last year, the program reported a 44% increase in life safety tips from HISD users, meaning at least one life is in imminent danger.

The top five tips reported through the Say Something program are bullying, planned school attack, suicide, drug use and depression.

"What we're seeing is a shift in tips. Much more self-reporting, much more suicide ideation and attempts," said Hockley.

Like a tip in September 2020 that helped HISD police save a female high school student.

"When we dispatched our HISD police department out, when they arrived at the home, they did see that the student had a plan that was in the process of being executed," said director of HISD's Social and Emotional Learning Department Dr. Roberta Scott.

Scott leads the Social and Emotional Learning Department for the state's largest school district.

Just as schools shut down in Spring of 2020, HISD established a mental health hotline for students, staff and families through Beal Behavioral Health.

Dr. Beal tells ABC13 that they took 980 calls in less than 90 days.

"It was alarming," she said. "And it was frightening, because we had such a high need and it was like 'Oh my God. How do we respond to this?'"

HISD responded by creating a permanent in-house crisis hotline where students and staff can anonymously self-report and receive tele-therapy.

That new crisis hotline number is 713-556-1340.

These experts say to pay close attention to your student. Watch out for a decline in their interests and social behavior.

They say it is key to stay connected with your child and closely monitor all internet and cell phone use.

"Talk to your kid. Talk to them. Don't just leave them in their room or in their basement on the computer looking at their school work. Work alongside them. Be connected, and communicate with them regularly," said Hockley.

Chandler says she found comfort in reading this past year.

Experts encourage parents and guardians to reach out to a mental health professional at the first sign of depression, anxiety or stress in your child.

If you or someone you know has expressed suicidal thoughts please call the National Suicide Hotline immediately at 800-273-8255.

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