When Dr. Nanette Allison, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with JPS Health Network, takes her toddler to the pediatrician, she’s told how to “toddler-proof” her home. The focus makes sense: For children, unintentional injury is a leading cause of death.  

“But how many times have you heard about how to prevent suicide in your child or your teenager?” Allison asked a crowded Texas Wesleyan University ballroom. Suicide, too, is a leading cause of death. “We don’t talk about it enough — how we can intervene as adults. Our kids are struggling.”

Allison and a small cohort of mental health experts gathered Nov. 11 to discuss worsening mental health among the country’s young people and how Tarrant County can respond. The panel event, organized by the Fort Worth Report as part of its “Candid Conversations” series, drew roughly 130 people amid a morning rainstorm. The event was a collaboration with the Women’s Policy Forum, which offered three more panel discussions about mental health. 

The four panelists, including Allison, explored factors complicating the wellbeing of children and adolescents, discussed the growing connectedness of mental health organizations across the county, and emphasized the need for whole-family support. 

Young people were struggling long before the pandemic. Between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness increased from about 26% to 37%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021, that percentage jumped to 44%. 

In the same timeframe, the percentage of high school students who attempted suicide increased from about 6% to 9%. 

For Manvi Srivastava, a panelist and 11th-grader at Rock Hill High School in Frisco, the first year of the pandemic aligned with her first year in high school. Her school offered in-person and virtual learning, but regardless of the decision students made, they struggled, she said. 

Isolation and distraction complicated her learning; math was particularly hard. She’s still feeling the effects in her current classes, she said. 

The interruptions were not only academic, but social and emotional. “What we’ve had is really a developmental delay for 72,000 students (in Fort Worth ISD), and that’s not going to change overnight,” said Michael Steinert, a panelist and assistant superintendent of student support services for Fort Worth ISD. 

An overburdened and understaffed mental health workforce complicates the problem. Steinert has noticed skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression not only among students but also staff. “You’re dealing with a traumatized group of folks,” he said. 

Tarrant County has about six child and adolescent psychiatrists like Allison per 100,000 children, according to data from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “That’s not enough to meet the need, right?” Allison said. 

To help, JPS Health Network will launch a child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship in July 2023. Allison and her colleagues have already interviewed 20 candidates — physicians finishing their training in general psychiatry. “Our hope is that they will continue in the community so we can see more children and help them along their journey,” she said. 

Fort Worth ISD is harnessing “creative partnerships” to reconnect students and families to services throughout the county, Steinert said. For example, the district recently partnered with Texas Christian University to open a counseling center in one of the district’s family resource centers, which help people with behavioral health services as well as basic needs like food and clothing. 

Addressing the whole family’s needs matters, said Diana Davis, a panelist and clinical director of Alliance for Children, a child advocacy organization in Tarrant County. She and her colleagues have observed an increase in parental stress throughout the pandemic. 

“If the parents aren’t supportive or aren’t able to focus on a child’s mental health, it’s really difficult for the child to be able to do that on their own,” she said. 

Partnerships like the one between Fort Worth ISD and TCU are a hallmark of the past few years, the panelist’s moderator, Susan Garnett, said. Garnett is the executive director of MHMR of Tarrant County

“We work with JPS. We work with Alliance (for Children). We work with Fort Worth ISD,” she said. “Years ago, we were much more inclined to each have our own mission and be focused on our own mission. But today, we really work together.”

That coordination between organizations, coupled with a widening focus on the whole family, helps children. “The child, the student, is the jumping-off point,” Garnett said. “But we’re reaching everybody that needs help in a family because it takes everybody to keep that kid healthy.”

Srivastava is a member of her school’s Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program in schools across the country. She emphasized that a successful method for one child may not work for someone else. For some students, help might look like counseling, she said. For others, it might be medication. 

“And sometimes,” she said, “you just need to be patient to help them go through those hard times.”

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at alexis.allison@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....