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Hutto High School student raises awareness about teen mental health after overcoming her own struggle

Hutto student Genesis Gonzales' advocacy efforts come during a time when the CDC reports teen mental health is worsening.

AUSTIN, Texas — Teen mental health has reached a crisis level across the country, including in the Austin area.

According to data compiled by Integral Care, suicide deaths among children and youth have increased in the past five years, from 20 deaths in 2018 to 33 deaths in 2022. The nonprofit community center, which serves as the mental health authority for Travis County, cited the City of Austin's Office of Vital Records as the source for the data set. 

Integral Care also pulled data from the Texas Department of State Health Services that showed children and youth with mental, behavioral or emotional issues visited emergency departments 40,254 times in 2022. That's a slight increase from 2021, when children and youth made 40,192 emergency department visits, but a drop from 2019, when children and youth made 45,439 emergency department visits.    

The Austin area follows a trend of worsening mental health for teens nationwide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly four in 10 high school students had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021.

The KVUE Defenders looked into what more can be done to address the teen mental health crisis and spent time with a Williamson County teenager who shared her struggles.

Behind the walls of Hutto High School roam thousands of teenagers. Genesis Gonzales is one of them. 

"It's going all right," Gonzales said. 

The high school junior is back to enjoying school in-person – especially choir class, where she belts out songs with her classmates.

But this wasn't always the case.      

"It was just hard just being alone," Gonzales said.

The 16-year-old spent part of 8th grade and her entire 9th-grade year learning virtually from home because of the pandemic. 

That took a toll. 

"I didn't really have as many friends, so just seeing people's faces on a screen didn't help with that social interaction," Gonzales said.

Social media made things worse. 

"I personally struggled with body image for a while, especially with the rise of social media. I think that was really hard, seeing what I thought society expected from girls. And I wasn't that," Gonzales said.

As a result, Gonzales said she withdrew and struggled with her mental health. 

"I was really sad," Gonzales said.

She's not alone. 

According to the CDC, the percentage of high school students with "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" increased from 2011 to 2021.

For male students, the percentage went from 21% in 2011 to 29% in 2021. Female high schoolers saw a larger increase, from 36% in 2011 to 57% in 2021. 

Carolyn Mehlomakulu is a licensed family therapist who specializes in teens and children.

"I do see a lot of teens that are struggling – struggling with depression and anxiety," Mehlomakulu said.  

She's seeing more parents and teens seeking help. There is a waitlist for her services.  

"There might be one stressor in somebody's life, and they can manage that and they can cope through that. But when you have multiple stressors all around you, that makes it that much harder," Mehlomakulu said. 

The pandemic is one stressor, but it isn't the only one.

The CDC reports that new trend data shows teen girls and LGBTQ+ teens experienced "extremely high levels of mental distress" due to increased exposure to violence and sexual violence. 

Fifteen percent of teen girls experienced sexual violence in 2017. In 2021, that number increased to 18%. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ high schoolers had more experiences of violence compared to heterosexual teens in 2021. 

The CDC report also says "a combination of complex factors can place young people at high risk for suicide, depression, substance use disorder, poor academic performance, and other severe consequences." 

Data shows 13% of male high school students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide in 2011. In 2021, that number went up to 14%. For female high school students, there was a larger increase, from 19% in 2011 to 30% in 2021.

School violence and school shootings are general factors as well. 

"They are dealing with a culture of gun violence that is making many teens feel afraid. And every time there's another shooting, it heightens that fear and that anxiety," Mehlomakulu said.

She said it is a crisis.

Brittany Yelverton with the Girls Empowerment Network agrees.

"We are at a point of crisis," Yelverton echoed.

The nonprofit helps teen girls with their self esteem. 

"We wanted to equip girls with the skills they were going to need to be changemakers in their community," Yelverton said.

Through programs like the group's Spark Change Project, high schoolers learn to believe in themselves through advocacy. 

Gonzales said it not only helped her get better but motivated her to help other struggling teens as she raiseawareness about mental health. 

"I really wanted to be able to support others as well and make sure that they are supported, especially young girls," Gonzales said. 

Ben Gonzales said it was hard to watch his daughter suffer. But she wasn't the only one having a hard time.

"While she's struggling, I'm struggling, my other daughter [is] struggling. And so, we're all trying to figure out how to struggle together through this," he said.

He said after getting help, he's proud of how far his daughter has come.

"Just seeing her kind of blossom from where she was to where she is now, it just makes her dad very proud," Ben Gonzales said.

Mental health experts – including the CDC – and mental health advocates alike say more needs to be done to help teens with their mental health. 

Especially when Texas ranks dead last when it comes to access to care, according to Mental Health America, making schools a critical lifeline for students facing trauma.

Jen Porter is the director of student services at Hutto ISD.

"This is where the kids are," Porter said.

She said that's why providing faster and easier mental health care for students and staff is a priority.

"If we can provide quality behavioral health services within the school district, it really just benefits the kids and their parents socially and emotionally. But of course, that impacts them academically, too," Porter said.

For parents and guardians, experts say there's a right approach when talking to teens about their mental health.  

"I think if you go looking for like, 'what's wrong, what can we fix,' then you're sometimes going to miss what's actually going on. Because sometimes mental health issues don't have a specific cause," Mehlomakulu said.

Mental health experts recommend keeping questions open-ended. Ask teens how they are feeling, what's on their minds or if they'd like to share what's bothering them. Also, listen and don't minimize what teens have to say.

Now that Genesis Gonzales has come through the other side of her mental health journey, she has a message for other teens who may be struggling.

"I want girls to know that they're not alone," she said. "Don't stay quiet."

She definitely won't, as she continues advocating for mental health resources. 

"We need people to support us," she said.

Listed below are several resources for parents and caregivers.

FindTreatment.gov is "a confidential and anonymous resource for persons seeking treatment for mental and substance use disorders in the United States and its territories," according to its website.

The American Psychiatric Association Foundation is the nonprofit arm of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and complements the APA by administering public outreach programs aimed at eliminating stigma, overcoming mental illness and advancing mental health.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is a nonprofit whose mission is to promote mentally healthy children, adolescents and families through research, training, prevention, collaborative diagnosis and treatment and peer support. 

The American Psychological Association's mission "is to promote the advancement, communication and application of psychological science and knowledge to benefit society and improve lives," according to its website. 

If you need immediate help, call 988 for free confidential support 24/7.

Jenni Lee on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram  

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