Teen mental health at the forefront of new UT Dell research


The University of Texas Dell Medical School is launching a new project designed to improve mental health in teens and young adults, thanks to a grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. 

According to a 2005 study, half of American adults living with mental illness say their symptoms began during childhood and early adulthood. The grant money, which totals nearly $1 million, would be used to create programs that focus on treating people between 16 and 25 years old, said Dr. Stephen Strakowski, who chairs Dell Medical’s Department of Psychiatry. 

“The goal is to develop a better mental health care system that recognizes the developmental phases that occur from 16 to 25,” Strakowski said. “so, that young people actually find care relevant to them.”
University of Texas student, Kaity Dallas, knows what mental illness looks like. Her depression started in middle school.
“I had trouble sleeping, I didn’t eat very well and I was dehydrated constantly and those ended up being symptoms of depression,” said the 22-year old, who graduates next month. “And, I didn’t know that.”

She says she has walked some of her friends into the university’s counseling and mental health center for help. She believes teens and young adults think school, work or their social lives trigger the symptoms; when they are really dealing with mental illness.

Researcher believe teens and young adults do not receive the treatment they need because adolescence is when many stop seeing a pediatrician and begin seeing a family physician. And, many of their symptoms are undiagnosed at a young age.

“A 17 year old dealing with depression, for example, would be moving from services where they’re treated like their 12 with their parents,” said Dr. Strakowski. “To suddenly services that are really designed for someone who is 40 with schizophrenia.” 

 And, when they do get help, up to 90 percent quit treatment because they are faced with a health system that focuses on either smaller children or older adults; and, nothing in between.

Armed with the grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Dr. Strakowski said for the next two years Dell Medical researchers will examine a slew of ways to reach and keep young clients, like using apps for teens and doctors to better communicate.  Timing is crucial, he said.

“Depression, bi-polar disorder, alcohol and drug abuse typically starts as an adolescent,” he said. “So, this is an opportunity to get ahead of these conditions before they become entrenched illnesses.”      

A little more than $650,000 of the grant comes from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The rest comes from the University of Texas. Researchers say they are also taking ideas from community and education groups on the best ways to treat mental illness in teens and young adults. 

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