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New Children’s Health report shows North Texas kids need more mental health support

Pediatrician examines a patient's ear in an exam room.
Children's Health
Pediatrician Mia Best examines Children’s Health patient Zhyian Denson. Best is part of an initiative between Children's and Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute to support pediatricians and other pediatric health providers in diagnosing, treating and discussing mental health concerns among North Texas kids.

This story discusses mental health and data related to suicide. For resources and support, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text HOME to 741741 to connect to the Crisis Text Line.

Children’s Health’s biannual report highlights the continued need for mental health services across North Texas.

The Beyond ABC report measures childhood wellness in seven counties in the region, including Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton. It’s compiled with input from an advisory board made up of experts and professionals from across the health field, including experts from public health departments, hospital systems and school districts.

Some aspects of childhood health improved or remained the same since the previous year’s report, including a decline in teen birth rates, the child poverty rate, and the number of child deaths from abuse and neglect.

But psychologists are still concerned about the rate of youth suicides, which has increased since 1999 in Texas, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Both nationally and in Texas, more than 20% of high school students “seriously considered attempting suicide” in 2021.

Dr. Betsy Kennard, a psychiatry professor with UT Southwestern Medical Center and Children’s Health, said even though people can access expanded psychiatric services through telehealth and the state’s Child Psychiatry Access Network, there’s still more work to do.

“I think there’s more awareness and less stigma about mental health, but it doesn’t seem to be decreasing the need for care,” she said.

Kids between 7 years old and 20 years old were most at risk for death by suicide, according to the report. Students of color, in addition to female students, experienced more suicidal thoughts and attempts than other groups.

Kennard said feeling isolated and disconnected often increases mental health symptoms.

“The most important protective factor is having a child who’s socially connected at school as well as at home,” Kennard said. “If there’s a kid that’s not connected to friends at school, that’s a risk factor and that’s addressable.”

Sandra Caudle chats with students while they play with blocks Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, at Momentous Institute in Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
Sandra Caudle chats with students while they play with blocks Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, at Momentous Institute in Dallas.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both youth suicide and youth homicide deaths have increased since 2007. The suicide rate among people 10-24 years old increased 62% between 2007 and 2021. In 2021, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for kids 10-14, and the third-leading cause for kids between 15-24.

Dr. Sabrina Browne, assistant psychiatry professor at UT Southwestern, said kids are experiencing a lot of stress. She encourages parents and caregivers to find ways to incorporate discussions about mental health into everyday conversations.

“It doesn’t have to be a deep, profound sit down,” Browne said. “We start having it just be a normal part of everyday life. ‘How was your day? How was your mood? How are you feeling?’

“When we have those regular check-ins, it becomes less of a barrier for a child to come forward to their parents and say, ‘Hey, I’m really struggling.’”

Even though conversations about suicide and serious mental health outcomes can be challenging, Kennard said it’s important to have them.

“I think parents sometimes avoid those kinds of conversations because they’re afraid they’ll ‘put the idea’ in their child’s head,” she said, “but we know based on research and science that’s not accurate.”

Based on the data for the year, the advisory board offers recommendations to improve childhood health outcomes. In 2023, children are still impacted by large-scale trauma events, like school shootings and the COVID-19 pandemic, and the report highlights the need for better mental health support in schools and for prioritizing social emotional learning.

Social emotional learning is an educational framework that helps students address mental well-being through conflict resolution and self-esteem skills. The framework improves students’ academic outcomes by supporting their holistic needs as learners.

Browne said it’s important for everyone—teachers, families, pediatricians—to find ways to support kids’ mental health.

“It’s not going to be a quick fix,” she said. “It’s not going to be an easy change. It’s going to take a lot of people working a long time to really see the shift, so I think it is so important that we’re having these conversations, and we keep having these conversations.”

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Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.