New research paints dire mental health picture of Texas youth

Young people in the state with depression are increasingly reporting suicidal ideation or suicide attempts.

By Alexandra HartSeptember 18, 2023 10:34 am, ,

This story discusses suicide. If you or a loved one needs help, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

By now, we have heard that the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on mental health, especially among young people. Between lockdowns, isolation and general disruption of daily life, many kids and teens reported new or worsening mental health concerns, according to the CDC.

New research from UT Southwestern digs deeper into how depression is affecting youth in Texas and it reveals some troubling trends among its findings: young people in the state with depression increasingly reporting suicidal ideation, even suicide attempts.

Dr. Betsy Kennard, a psychologist at UT Southwestern’s O’Donnell Brain Institute, directs the Suicide Prevention and Resilience Program at Children’s Health in Dallas. She joined Texas Standard to discuss the research and its implications. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Let me ask you something before we get to the nuts and bolts of this study. What have you seen firsthand when it comes to young people presenting themselves as reporting suicidal ideation and the number of suicide attempts that you have seen?

Dr. Betsy Kennard: Well, we are definitely seeing an increase locally in Dallas. We have had a dramatic increase of children presenting to the emergency room with either suicidal ideation that has worsened or after a suicide attempt.

You know, in our local area, that’s one of the reasons we created the SPARC program that you mentioned earlier, which is a suicide prevention program, intensive outpatient program at Children’s Health, to provide care for these kids while allowing them to stay in their homes and in their schools.

Well, now let’s fast forward to the study. How was it conducted? What were some of the key findings?

Yes, this is a statewide collaboration funded by the Texas Legislature to look at youth across the state of Texas. And so these are more than a thousand kids that are in treatment for depression.

What we have found is almost half have made a suicide attempt in their lifetime, which suggests to us that we may be getting to these children too late once they get to treatment in psychiatric facilities or psychiatric clinics. And so our hope is that we can push more recognition of these kids in primary care as well as in the schools before they make a suicide attempt.

Now, how do rates of depression and suicide among Texas teenagers compare to nationwide trends?

Well, we find that our rates are a little bit higher than the other states. And one of the concerns that we have, and I think that’s why this Legislature funded this, is that our access to mental health care is about 50th out of the 50 states.

So we have very limited access to mental health care for these kids. And that’s why the Legislature is trying to improve not only, you know, the study of these kids, but access to health care.

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Well, now, what factors seem to be driving these trends in youth depression and suicidality? 

Well, we know that it was going up before the COVID pandemic, but certainly the COVID pandemic increased the number of kids that are presenting for suicide, either ideation or attempts.

We know that economic hardship is a factor. These kids have often been exposed to trauma or discrimination. Also greater exposure to other kids who are self-harming or attempting, basically suicide attempting. We know that they’re under more academic pressure. There’s a lack of connectedness in these kids – that they don’t feel connected at school.

Also we are concerned that there is greater access or more easy access to lethal means, which has contributed to a higher – almost 50% – death by suicide rate. And as I said, exposure to violence or bullying or having a serious health condition can create suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

» RELATED: Study finds COVID-related school closures increased mental health risks for young people

Well, so what are the next steps or future research initiatives that you think will build upon the findings of this study?

I think we want to look at these kids over time to see how they do.

Can we identify best practices that help to get these kids better earlier? We want to determine what are the trajectories of their outcomes, what are the predictors or moderators. Are there social determinants that we can maybe adjust in our environments to improve the outcomes?

So we we really need more prevention strategies, as well as treatment strategies for suicidal ideation and behavior.

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