Editor’s note: This story contains graphic content and explicit language.
One evening in early October, 11-year-old Jordan typed the following into a Google document:
“give me 10 GOOD reasons why I shuldnt kill myself here
No reasons were listed.
Those words set off a cascade of actions. Since Jordan was using a school-issued computer, the Frisco Independent School District’s technology department flagged it for counselors. Jordan’s mother, Candice, was notified by the counselor at Jordan’s middle school the next morning before she left for work, who recommended she take him to get help.
That morning, Candice took Jordan to Children’s Medical Center Plano for a psychological evaluation and at the doctors’ recommendation checked him into in-patient psychiatric care at a hospital that takes kids ages 5 through 17.
(The names of both student and parent have been changed in this story, because Candice worried about the impact on her child’s mental health of his experience being publicized. The Texas Tribune used interviews with Candice and Jordan conducted from July through January, documents provided by Candice and interviews with Frisco ISD about its general response to student mental health crises to report this story.)
Candice knew that months of remote learning had been hard on Jordan, who already had anxiety and low self-esteem. Jordan is Black, and research shows rates of clinical depression and suicidal thoughts were rising among Black children nationally in recent years, even before the pandemic. He began at a new school as a sixth grader this fall, and his usual A’s and B’s dipped to F’s, like many Texas students learning remotely during the pandemic. The pressure overwhelmed Jordan to the point where he regularly berated himself and hit himself in the head, according to Candice.
Candice also knew that a solution had to involve Jordan returning to school in person, despite her initial concerns about him becoming infected with COVID-19. Virtual school might be a viable or even better option for some children, but it certainly was not for Jordan.
“He was seeming like he was doing OK, and then I turn around and blink twice and he’s failing classes and it’s hard for him to catch up, and it got worse,” she told The Texas Tribune in October, the day after checking Jordan into psychiatric care. “Right now, I care more about his mental health. I’d rather catch COVID than see my baby swinging.”
Jordan and Candice are far from alone. Mental health experts say many students report feeling deeply anxious and depressed, in large part due to social isolation during the pandemic. A Texas advisory committee on youth behavioral health is meeting Wednesday morning to discuss how to better coordinate services.
Some children who had learned to manage their anxiety disorders have had more trouble doing so during the pandemic, according to Karin Price, a pediatric psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital. But the hospital system also received more than 400 new referrals between March and November for children experiencing “distress related to COVID,” she said.
In 62,000-student Frisco ISD, the number of students requiring hospitalization for mental health needs has increased this school year. As of Dec. 11, 317 Frisco ISD students had been hospitalized for mental health concerns, already exceeding the total number for the entire 2019-20 academic year. The number of students thinking about, attempting or dying by suicide this school year is also on track to exceed last year’s totals, according to the district.
Many students are having trouble with the lack of social connection, said Stephanie Cook, Frisco ISD’s director of counseling. Changes associated with the pandemic have created a “pressure cooker for mental health issues,” she said. School staff members in the district are referring students in need of mental health services and prioritizing teaching students how to cope emotionally.
Parents with children with mental health problems face an excruciating decision — whether the health risk of returning to school as COVID-19 cases rise is a better choice than keeping their children isolated.
Price said families should weigh their risk factors: Do they live with loved ones at risk for illness? Is their school following adequate safety protocols? “Obviously there is no right answer, and I think that just like school districts are trying to make the best choices that protect the health and safety of large groups of kids and administrators, families have to be making decisions about what is best for their family,” she said.
Last summer, Jordan wanted to go to school in person, but Candice said no. A single mother and business owner, she had lost a lot of money during the state-mandated shutdowns in the spring. She worried Jordan could get COVID-19 at school, damage his health and force her to shut down her business again.
When schools pivoted to virtual learning in the spring, Candice was home some of the time helping him. And classes were a lot easier. Unlike the fall, Texas schools largely told teachers to go easy on students academically, aware the pandemic was negatively impacting almost everyone.
When Frisco ISD announced last summer that parents had to choose between in-person or virtual schooling, Jordan told his mom he wanted to stay home, scared from what he was hearing about COVID-19. But then he changed his mind, eager to see his teachers and learn alongside other students.
He knew his mom didn’t feel the same way and eventually felt it was futile to keep asking her. “If she thinks I should do virtual, I’m just going to have to do it anyway, and I don’t want to fight,” he told the Tribune in the summer, resigned to his fate. About 44% of Frisco ISD students also chose to stay virtual, a number that has stayed relatively steady throughout the fall.
Candice tried to find other options to leaving Jordan home alone. She asked her cousin to keep him alongside her kids for the day, and thought about asking her mom to fly in from California. But both ideas fell through. She heard from another mother who offered to keep Jordan with her own child during the day. But the offer came with so many stipulations, including that Jordan sit perfectly still, without getting distracted, for hours at a time, that Candice eventually dismissed it.
The fall brought a new wave of challenges. “I see now why a lot of parents said, ‘OK if we’re going to do online, I’m going to go to an online school … because they already have their shit together,’” Candice said. Jordan had to look for his assignments on three or four online platforms, often missing some because he wasn’t sure where to log in. He would tell Candice he had done his schoolwork, but she would receive emails from his teachers claiming he hadn’t turned anything in. His experience mirrors those of many Texas students this school year, in part a result of the state’s failure to give districts time or resources to plan for remote learning this fall.
“You want to believe your baby. Who do you believe? What do you do?” Candice said. “Trying to navigate that was really difficult.”
About a week before Candice checked Jordan into psychiatric care in October, Candice heard from the mother of Jordan’s friend. Apparently, Jordan had messaged the boy, “kill me, kill me, kill me now.” Jordan had tried to quickly delete all the messages, but his friend saw them anyway and told his mother.
Candice called Jordan that day and asked him what was going on. He told her about his anxiety over grades. She tried to reassure him: “I said, ‘Babe, you know your grades are important, but everybody’s grades are failing right now, not just yours. This is really hard.’” She promised to try to get him a tutor. Without any more lockdowns since the spring, her business had sprung back up, and she figured she might be able to afford it.
A week later, she was checking him into the hospital. Candice gets close to tears when she thinks about this summer. She feels guilty that she didn’t listen to Jordan and send him to school in person. “I was keeping him home for my clients’ sake but almost neglecting his,” she said. “He was nervous about going, back but he knew best in this situation. He knew best.”
Jordan stayed in the hospital for about a week, Candice said. He got a limited prescription for Lexapro, often used for anxiety, and a list of therapists to contact. Candice reached out to at least one immediately asking for their soonest opening. She was told in an email she shared with the Tribune that the therapist could not take new clients at the time and the next opening could be a one- to two-month wait. She also struggled to find a psychiatrist who would see him right away and extend the prescription for his anti-anxiety medication, she said.
Even before the pandemic, families seeking psychiatric care for their children were hitting brick walls. And research shows Black and Hispanic families nationwide have had less access to mental health services for years. Now, the number of children who need that help has significantly increased. “Do we have the supply to meet the demand? The answer is probably not,” Price said. She suggested families seek out mental health providers licensed in Texas who might be able to see their children via videoconferencing, a service that has expanded during the pandemic.
Candice sent Jordan to school in person Friday, Oct. 16. But soon after, she realized she had the classic symptoms of COVID-19: lack of taste and smell. She tested positive and pulled her son out of in-person school the following Tuesday. “Then here we are back in this exact situation,” she said, frustrated.
Jordan had to wait 24 days to return to school — 10 days for Candice to isolate and an additional 14 days to make sure he didn’t contract the virus. In the meantime, he was still getting messages from his teachers regularly that he wasn’t completing lessons. Having missed days of school, he was even more behind.
“It was driving me fucking crazy. I told them, I said, ‘You know what? Leave us alone. If he fails, we will redo this year,’” Candice said. “His sanity and mine are at stake right now. I can’t take it right now. I can’t take all the calls and the emails and the text messages and him saying he’s done it and him crying and hitting his head and them cutting off his meds and I can’t get him into a psychiatrist. I’m losing my shit, and I’m trying to keep it together for him.”
Finally, by Nov. 16, Jordan was back to in-person school. Candice told him to be kind to himself, that basically he had been out of school for months and it was OK if he didn’t catch up. She just wants her son to be healthy. But she knows that goal is harder for some families to achieve than others during a pandemic that has destabilized many lives.
“If you don’t have the money or … some people have a huge support system. If you don’t have that, your kid is not going to be OK. Just period,” she said.
Over the last few weeks, Jordan has been feeling lighter. After calling about 10 mental health providers who didn’t have immediate appointments, Candice found one who could see him. Jordan is on anti-anxiety medication and going to school in person each day. He gets to be with his friends and gets to run around outside. His grades are back up in most classes.
“There’s definitely more light,” Candice said. “He’s processing things better, and we’re working through it."
Disclosure: Google has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
For mental health support related to COVID-19, call the state’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 833-986-1919. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to text with a trained crisis counselor. Read our mental health resource guide for more information.