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Where parents and students in Texas can turn for help with mental health concerns

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Over the last year, Texas children have experienced higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation as the pandemic leaves them socially isolated, scared and uncertain about the future.

Some already grappled with mental health challenges. Others experienced them for the first time.

Pediatric psychiatric hospitals, such as Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, report admitting more young people after suicide attempts this fall than ever before. But families seeking treatment struggle to navigate the complicated health care system. “Many of our families are unable to access the services they need for ongoing treatment,” Kia Carter, the center’s co-medical director of psychiatry, told state lawmakers in December.

The Texas Tribune put together this resource guide for Texas families with children who are struggling, drawn from interviews with experts, advice from mental health advocates and existing state-provided resources. The guide is not exhaustive but offers a first step for those looking for help.

What should I do if my child is struggling with their mental health?

If your child is in immediate danger of hurting themselves or others, call 911, take them to the closest emergency room or call a nearby psychiatric hospital.

For mental health support related to COVID-19, families can call the state’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 833-986-1919. They 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.

For ongoing care, family members who feel their child is experiencing mental health problems can seek outpatient counseling or psychiatric care, or short- or long-term care in a hospital or treatment center. Often, a pediatrician or other primary care doctor can refer families to other services.

One in Five Minds, a Texas-based mental health education program, published this parent guide, which explains how to recognize signs of mental illness, what to expect at the first visit to a psychiatrist and how to afford mental health care.

How can I find a Texas mental health provider?

Texas contracts with nearly 40 regional mental and behavioral health authorities that deliver and coordinate affordable mental health services in their communities. (That state website is also available in Spanish.) The Texas Psychological Association website also can help identify a local psychologist. And the Medicaid provider website can help families that have Medicaid, which covers some mental health services.

The state has created a website collecting available national, regional and local mental health resources.

Unfortunately, many mental health providers have waitlists of at least a few weeks right now for outpatient therapy or psychiatric care, since demand has increased significantly. Experts say families should ask their mental or behavioral health authorities for references to providers in other parts of the state who conduct virtual or psychiatric appointments through telehealth, which may cut down the wait time.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Texas also offers online support groups.

What role does my child’s school play?

Public schools can be a major resource for families in need of help. In 2019, Texas lawmakers began requiring schools to train teachers in addressing student trauma and developing ways to prevent suicide and substance abuse.

Parents can reach out to teachers and counselors to refer them to outside resources. For example, the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program provides free virtual short-term psychiatric care for students referred through their schools. The program, which may have a shorter waitlist than longer-term providers, is coordinated through several medical centers across the state, including in Central Texas, El Paso, Houston, East Texas, the Brazos Valley, the Rio Grande Valley and the Panhandle.

Unfortunately, the program is still not available in many schools across the state, but parents can advocate for their school districts to make it available. You can search this map to see if your school is on the list.

School districts should also provide special education accommodations for children experiencing mental health challenges that interfere with their academic progress. Disability Rights Texas provides resources on how to request an initial evaluation for special education and how to file a formal complaint if a school mishandles special education. NAMI also published a guide on mental health and special education.

What else is out there?

The Tribune has created other resource guides during the pandemic, including one on how to find free meals, internet access and housing assistance and one on how to navigate the unemployment system.

Mental Health America provides information on how to find support groups, including online communities, for mental health recovery.

The Texas Family Voice Network, which partners with advocacy organizations and leaders across the state, created a resource guide with links in Spanish and English on where to seek out mental health and other services for your child.

Navigate Life Texas, a state health department project, created this easy-to-read rundown of which types of places provide mental health treatment for children, how to work with providers and how to pay for treatment.

The Trevor Project, which provides suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth, has a 24/7 crisis intervention hotline at 866-488-7386.

The Texas Suicide Prevention Collaborative has mental health resource pages specifically for young people and their families. It also created a video series, in collaboration with Mental Health America of Texas and the state health department, to help community members identify and refer young people at risk of suicide. And it partners with local suicide prevention coalitions who have more information about local resources.