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Spike in mental health issues, suicidal thoughts alarms Texas school counselors

Scott Muri, Spring Branch ISD superintendant, left, and Texas House of Representatives John Zerwas, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, center, right, are shown during a discussion at Memorial High (Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer)

Suicide crept into 17-year-old Nicholas’ mind a few months ago.

The Spring Branch ISD junior said his life had been unraveling since his parents divorced eight years ago. His father drank every night and his mother began abusing prescription pain pills, leaving him with few outlets or trusted adults in whom he could confide.

He finally snapped when a classmate called him ugly. But instead of getting into a fist fight or turning to drugs, Nicholas walked down the hall to an office of mental health counselors that a nonprofit partnership embedded in Memorial High School.

“They helped me out and gave me the biggest hug,” he remembered. “For the first time, I felt like I was worth it.”

Schools across Texas are taking a more serious look at students’ mental health needs to prevent potential tragedies and improve academic outcomes. What they are finding is a stunning spike in students struggling with mental health challenges, prompting them to try to beef up their support networks.

Calls for students in crisis in the Houston area have almost doubled in the past three years from about 2,500 students annually to nearly 5,000, according to Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that works with 142 school districts from El Paso to East Texas. The group expanded its Southeast Texas reach by opening in an additional school district — Nederland ISD — and by increasing the number of site coordinators in Port Arthur ISD from eight to 13, mostly in response to the devastation brought by Hurricane Harvey.

Lisa Descant, chief operating officer of Communities in Schools of Houston, said she feared funding shortages would force Houston-area schools to cut their mental health services. Instead, the group expanded to at least 10 additional campuses in the region this year.

At one Houston high school, Descant said 15 students exhibited warning signs of potential suicide in just a month. Memorial High in West Houston has seen similar numbers: 17 students there have been screened for suicidal ideation since August, another 29 came to counselors amid mental health crises and 222 students overall have sought out the school’s wellness center in just two and a half months.

“Folks who have been at our campuses for 20 to 30 years, those folks are seeing an increase in acute needs,” Descant said. “I would say the stressors in our communities are affecting our students. I would say it’s something we’re seeing more and more.”

The root of students’ issues are as complex as the individuals, Descant said, but her group saw a surge in need in areas swamped by Hurricane Harvey. And, after a 17-year-old gunman killed 10 and wounded 13 at Santa Fe High School in May, schools have increasingly been searching for ways to prevent more loss – whether it be suicide or campus violence — by addressing students’ mental health needs.

The increase has been so pervasive that the Texas Education Agency developed a suicide prevention resource page on its website and launched a mental health task force to help districts in areas most affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Still, school-based counselors statewide have been struggling to keep up with the growing demands, said Sharon Bey, a retired school counselor who sits on the Texas School Counselor Association’s board. She said her colleagues in every corner of the state have noticed an uptick in students struggling with mental health issues, especially among elementary schoolers. Students as young as 6 have increasingly shown signs of anxiety, depression and hopelessness.

“We think it’s a gradual incline. We’re seeing more and more each year as the years go by,” Bey said. “But this year seems worse than any other.”

Despite the growing needs, Bey said schools across the Lone Star state employ too few counselors. On average, there is about one counselor for every 1,100 students in Houston ISD and about 1 for every 430 across Texas. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor per 250 students. The averages are even more stark for social workers and psychologists, who tend to serve thousands of students each.

Eliseo Elizondo, executive director of Communities in Schools’ Permian Basin chapter, said those shortages have led more school districts to reach out for help, and those that already use their services have been dealing with more major crises on a more frequent basis, including suicide interventions, abuse, family mental illnesses and homelessness.

“One district administrator told me she was a huge champion … because she ‘truly believed we saved lives and prevented situations like Santa Fe,” Elizondo said.

Since the Santa Fe massacre, lawmakers and education officials have suggested increasing funding for counselors and mental-health services for students. Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath has asked the state Legislature to approve $54 million to hire more counseling employees. Safety committees established in the state House of Representatives and Senate have also proposed finding more funds for such initiatives.

On Wednesday, House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Katy, toured Memorial High School to see how the Communities in Schools program worked.

As students bustled outside to get to their next class, Zerwas and some school administrators walked into a low-lit reception room and found plush seating, hot tea and soothing nature sounds. Two other rooms used white noise machines to blur the chatter outside and give students more privacy to discuss what’s stressing them.

They can sink into soft leather sofas, fiddle with textured pillows or complete classwork away from the fluorescent lights outside.

Principal Lisa Weir said before the center opened, students with panic attacks or severe anxiety would be sent to the nurse’s office. Now, not only can students escape if they need a break, but teachers can report troubling behaviors or struggling to professionals who can provide them with resources to help.

“So much of what we see today in the news around safety and school shootings is really a mental health issue, and now we have an avenue for our students and we’re taking the stigma off they have a safe place to go have a place to report,” Weir said. “It’s just been a wellspring, it’s been such a blessing to us.”

Nov 3, 2018
The Houston Chronicle
By Shelby Webb


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