A high school student, her mother and mental health experts from the Emergency Health Network gathered Thursday for a roundtable hosted by El Paso Matters.
More than 50 people attended the event, which was held at the El Paso Community College Administrative Services Center and concluded with an audience Q&A session. A recording of the live broadcast can be viewed online at elpasomatters.org/listings/events. The conversation is the first in a series of events hosted by El Paso Matters this year that focus on different topics impacting the community.
Austin High School senior Alice Cruz said she has been seeking help for her mental illness since she was 16, and a combination of therapy, psychology and psychiatry has helped her get to where she is today.
“It’s just like any other type of illness you would get,” Cruz said. “You have to take medication, or you have to go to therapy to recover.”
Krista Wingate, director of child and youth services for Emergence Health Network, said in a survey of 3,000 students at multiple high schools in three El Paso area school districts, Students said they wanted to learn how to cope with anxiety. The second most important response is about improving self-esteem.
Here are five highlights from the conference.
Signs My Child Is Struggling with Mental Health
Gisela Lopez said she noticed a change in her daughter Alice Cruz’s behavior. Cruz cried more than usual while sleeping. She isolated herself in her bedroom and was no longer interested in playing football, socializing or eating. Cruz assured her mother she was okay, but once Lopez noticed Cruz had cut himself, she knew Cruz wasn’t okay.
“I knew something was wrong because, honestly, I love eating, but I wasn’t eating at all,” Cruz said. “My mom gives me pasta or my favorite food and I completely throw it away.”
Cruz said that while her mental health condition did not affect her grades, she did stop communicating with teachers and friends.
In order to notice these changes in your child’s life, you have to get to know your child and have ongoing conversations with them, Wingate says. This sets the stage for difficult conversations later.
How do I get my kids to open up to me?
Wingate said it’s important for parents and caregivers to take a step back and understand that mental illness is not directly caused by something they do.
Wingate said parents should make sure they’re in the right frame of mind before talking to their children about mental health issues, especially if the topic feels uncomfortable or unnatural. Avoid having intense conversations when you feel exhausted, she says, because it may be harder to focus on your children.
Wingate recommends the “LUV” approach: listen attentively, understand and try to put yourself in the child’s shoes and validate their feelings. Approach the conversation with an open mind rather than anger, and take a moment to pause and be present, she said.
Lopez said she made it clear to her daughter that they would be going through their mental health journey together. Cruz adds that your child may not want to talk to you at first, so it’s important to build trust.
“You have to work on developing that trust, that relationship, to be able to have those difficult conversations,” said Julie Tirrell, an emergency health therapist at Austin High School.
Tirrell says this means showing a level of respect for your children and their stories.
Rather than asking the therapist to talk to you about your child (which may appear threatening in front of your child), Wingate says, start by asking your child what they’re talking about in therapy. Parents can request their child’s permission to observe the first 15 minutes of therapy or to have a collaborative conversation about topics to be discussed at the next family meeting.
Ask my child about social media use
Cruz said using social media has had a complex impact on her mental health.
“I saw people being happy when I was sad, traveling and having the best time of their lives while I was crying in the room, so that really affected me a lot,” Cruz said.
Tirrell said social media can be problematic for the developing brain, especially because “people only post what they want you to see.” When teens compare themselves to others, this can lead to self-abasement. Tyrrell said it’s difficult for young people to understand content on social media through filtered photos or selective perspectives that may not reflect reality.
Wingate said the unpopular idea is to limit time online, such as using wifi blocking apps that limit screen time. This may also look like not letting children sleep with their tablets, phones or school laptops, which prevents them from staying up late browsing social media. Talk to your kids about why you should limit their social media time, she says.
Low-cost or free mental health services available in El Paso
“Your brain is one of our most important organs,” Tirrell said. “Seeking help doesn’t need to be viewed in a negative way at all. It should be treated like heart disease.”
Two organizations in El Paso provide mental health services to students on campus.
Emergence Health Network is a local agency that provides mental health services, providing on-campus treatment and case management at at least 10 different schools in El Paso County. In addition to therapy, the organization provides case management and informal youth mentoring.
Project Vida is an El Paso nonprofit organization that provides in-school services to at least 21 schools in El Paso and Hudspeth counties. Each Project Vida mental health team includes a licensed professional counselor or licensed clinical social worker who rotates between the two campuses. Although clinicians can enroll new students in the middle of the academic year (if clients complete their treatment plans early), spots tend to fill up within the first three months of the academic year.
In the Isleta Independent School District, students, staff and their families can receive free mental health or substance abuse treatment through Care Solace, which connects people with off-campus providers.
Borderland Rainbow Center provides individual therapy, group therapy, and peer support group services to LGBTQ youth and adults. Individual treatment is available on a sliding scale based on income.
NAMI El Paso offers English and Spanish classes for parents and caregivers of children and adolescents diagnosed or not yet diagnosed with mental health issues.
Options besides treatment
Wingate said there is a shortage of counselors and therapists in El Paso, but there are other services that can provide different benefits than therapy in different ways.
Emergency Health Network provides caseworker services. Social workers with a degree in psychology can provide psychoeducation to parents and children. Social workers are overlooked, but they can help people learn coping skills and lay the groundwork for addressing mental health issues before starting treatment, she said.