AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the number of Texas students struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses continues to rise, we wanted to know the conditions inside the schools themselves, and what’s being done about this emerging crisis.

KXAN tapped the expertise of Central Texas counselors from five different school districts and gathered them together inside the auditorium at Zavala Elementary in east Austin.

The counselors were unanimous in their belief that most parents didn’t fully understand the scope of the problem, identified a unique technology-based solution that most said is worth exploring further, yet also disagreed about the answers to some key questions, such as “Why are more students than ever ending their own lives?”

Some of the counselor’s responses have been edited and condensed for the purpose of clarity and conciseness.

The role of social media Story continues below…

Lisa Schmitz, Austin: Some of the negative results that we’re definitely seeing, and that I’m sure y’all are seeing, too, is the addiction to electronics and the behavior issues that come out of that. It’s just such an immediate gratification. It’s always available. On the other end of it, the social media has allowed for some sophistication for kids. They’re really socially aware. They’re politically aware. It’s allowed for some really great conversations. 

LaShanda Lewis, Round Rock: They’re taking whatever they’re receiving as truth and not really knowing how to process that information. We start to see our students really struggle with trying to identify, “What should I do next?”, “How should I take this information in?” One of the things that I think we see with the growing number of kids who are presenting with mental health issues is the need for immediate gratification, and not understanding that mental health is a process.

Charlotte Winkelmann, Hays: Children react to what’s around them. So, as we become more engaged in social media, as we become more engaged in what we consider the norm, then children sometimes get confused about where their role is, and what they need to be as a child. 

Raina Ellis, Bastrop: Just the lack of conflict-resolution skills is what I think is one of the biggest impacts of social media among students. It’s like, “Well, I’m just going to go tell someone that this is happening, rather than going to the student and just talking it out.”

Laura Cathcart, Leander: The unhealthy coping strategies would be the things like addiction, or self-harm or constantly being on YouTube videos. It’s a release, or it’s a way to escape from those uncomfortable feelings.

Lewis: Unfortunately there’s a lot of special YouTube channels that are out there that kids are going to access that teach these bad coping mechanisms. I think it’s a lot harder to find ones where the coping mechanisms are the things that are positive for students. 

Schmitz: Another part of this issue is the parent addiction to social media as well, or to electronics, because that’s a very common complaint is that, “I just wish mom or dad would put their phone down.”

Lewis: It’s almost the same as an absent parent because the kids are wanting that attention from the parent, they’re wanting interaction. They’re losing that ability to have a conversation with one another and with that they’re losing being able to read body language and to really infer what the person is meaning. 

What counselors wish parents knew Story continues below…

Schmitz: Behavior is communication, and if your child is acting out, they’re trying to say something. If a child through their behavior is scared or, “I’m frustrated or I don’t understand” or whatever that emotion is, and they’re expressing it through behavior that we’re seeing as negative behavior. They’re saying, “I need help” and our response is, “Stop that.”

Ellis: The dynamics are very different even from parents who have young ones who left high school even 10 years ago. That’s the biggest thing I see, they assume it was (similar to) when they were there, and it’s so much different.

Winkelmann: Ask for help, and do not be embarrassed to ask for help. That’s why we do what we do. We’re there to nurture that child, and please ask for help. 

Ellis: Just that communication piece, making the teachers aware of, “Hey this is going on in our family right now, and this is why the grades may be dropping, or why you might be seeing these behaviors.” I think that is so important, to keep that communication open.

Red flags Story continues below…

Schmitz: My biggest concern is always the student that I don’t notice. The ones who are quiet, have self-esteem issues, maybe depressed, and because they’re compliant, we don’t notice them. What it says to me is to make sure that I am not missing something.

Winkelmann: Academics. If grades drop, grades change, absences, your child is ill more than they normally are.

Lewis: The important thing as parents is to recognize when behavior changes.

Elementary student mental health issues Story continues below…

Schmitz: I think the perception for elementary is that it does not happen in elementary school. The reality is that we have two or three students that are hospitalized in mental health facilities every year. We have probably a suicide or self-harm at least once a month. I mean, that’s the reality.  I think that would be shocking to most parents.

Lewis: Parents think, “Well, in elementary, that’s not happening,” but it is absolutely happening in elementary as young as pre-K. We’ve tracked data for pre-K through our 12th graders, and it doesn’t matter socio-economic status, it doesn’t matter gender, it doesn’t matter parent educational level. It’s the same by group.

Teen suicide prevention Story continues below…

Lewis: We have a Gaggle alert. What that is, is any time someone is on our district server, whether it is a text message, or an email, or they wrote a letter for a class or a paper, and it’s in their Google Drive or something, our system is set to flag on a certain number of various different sets of words.

Cathcart: We call it our “Content Keepers,” and it has to be through the student’s connection to the district Wi-Fi.

Winkelmann: My mind is thinking, I want to talk to your director, we’re going to talk about your Gaggle program.

Schmitz: I am also really interested in the Gaggle and I don’t know what AISD has in place.

Ellis: A lot of teachers will bring something they found written. So student outcry through a teacher, and then just their friends, we have friends come in all the time and say, “they’re going to hurt their self.”

Winklemann: Most districts have hotlines or they have anonymous ways that they can send that to the school district and someone is on 24-hour call and they respond immediately.  If your friend says they are going to hurt themselves, they let us know. I’ve seen a huge across-the-board increase. 

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