5 Ways El Paso Parents Can Support Their Children’s Mental Health

Gisela Lopez, left, shares her experience helping her daughter, Alice Cruz, right, seek treatment for depression and anxiety during a forum on mental health for teenagers sponsored by El Paso Matters, Emergence Health Network, and Socorro ISD. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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A high school student, her mother and mental health professionals from Emergence Health Network gathered on Thursday for a roundtable hosted by El Paso Matters.

More than 50 people attended the event at the El Paso Community College Administrative Services Center, ending with a question-and-answer session with the audience. The dialogue was the first in a series of events El Paso Matters is hosting this year that focus on different topics affecting the community.

Alice Cruz, a senior at Austin High School, said she began to seek help for her mental illness when she was 16 years old and a combination of therapy, psychology and psychiatry helped her get to where she is today.

“It’s like any other type of illness you’re going to have,” Cruz said. “You’re gonna have to take medication for it or you’re gonna have to go through therapy to recover from it.”

In a survey of 3,000 students across multiple high schools in three El Paso-area school districts, students said they wanted to learn how to cope with anxiety, said Krista Wingate, chief of child and adolescent services at Emergence Health Network. The second top response was about improving self-esteem.

Here are five highlights from the conference.

Austin High School therapist Julie Tirrell speaks on mental health in adolescents during a forum sponsored by El Paso Matters, Emergent Health Networth and Socorro ISD. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Signs my child is struggling with mental health

Gicela Lopez said she noticed changes in her daughter Alice Cruz’s behavior. Cruz slept and cried more than usual. She isolated herself in her bedroom and was no longer interested in playing soccer, socializing or eating. Cruz reassured her mother she was OK, but once Lopez noticed Cruz was cutting herself, she knew Cruz was not OK.

“I knew that something was wrong because I love to eat, honestly, and I was not eating at all,” Cruz said. “My mom gave me pasta or my favorite foods and I totally just threw them aside.”

While her mental health didn’t affect her grades, she did stop communicating with her teachers and friends, Cruz said.

In order to notice these changes in your kid’s life, you have to know your kid and have consistent conversations with them, Wingate said. This lays the groundwork for having tough conversations later.

How to get my child to open up to me

Wingate said it’s important for parents and caregivers to take a step back and understand mental illness is not directly caused by something they did.

Parents should make sure they’re in the right headspace before they talk to their child about mental health issues, especially when it’s a topic that feels uncomfortable or unnatural, Wingate said. Avoid having tough conversations when you’re feeling burnt out because it may be harder to pay attention to the child, she said.

Wingate recommended the “LUV” approach: listen with intention, understand and try to put yourself in your child’s shoes, validate what they’re feeling. Approach the conversation with an open mind, rather than anger, and take a second to pause and be present, she said.

Lopez said she made it clear to her daughter that they would go through the mental health journey together. Your child may not want to talk to you at first, so it’s important to establish trust, Cruz added.

“You have to work and grow that trust, that relationship, to be able to have those difficult conversations,” said Julie Tirrell, an Emergence Health therapist at Austin High School.

That means showing a level of respect for your child and their story, Tirrell said.

Rather than demanding that a therapist talk to you about your child – which may appear threatening in front of your child – start by asking your teen about what they talk about in therapy, Wingate said. A parent can ask their child for permission to sit in during the first 15 minutes of therapy, or have a collaborative conversation about what topics to discuss in the next family session.

Approaching my child about social media usage

Cruz said being on social media had a complicated effect on her mental health.

“I saw people that were happy when I was sad, that were having the best time of their lives traveling while I was in my room crying, so it definitely did influence me a lot,” Cruz said.

El Paso Matters invited a therapist, a high school student and a parent to speak at a mental health forum at El Paso Community College. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Tirrell said social media can be problematic for the developing mind, especially because “people only post what they want you to see.” This can lead to low self esteem as teens compare themselves to others. It’s hard for young people to understand what’s on social media – from filtered photos or selective angles – may not reflect reality, Tirrell said.

Wingate said the unpopular opinion is to restrict internet time, such as using wifi-blocking apps that limit screen time. This could also look like not letting children sleep with their tablet, cell phone or school laptop, which prevents them from staying up late scrolling through social media. Talk to your child about why you want to limit their social media time, she said.

Low-cost or free mental health services available in El Paso

“Your brain is one of the most important organs that we have,” Tirrell said. “Seeking help doesn’t need to be looked at in a negative way at all. It should be handled just like cardiac disease.”

Two organizations in El Paso offer mental health services to students on campus.

Emergence Health Network, a local agency that provides mental health services, offers on-campus therapy and case management in at least 10 different schools in El Paso County. Along with therapy, the organization provides case management and informal youth mentorship. 

Project Vida, a nonprofit in El Paso, offers on-campus services in at least 21 schools across El Paso and Hudspeth counties. Each mental health team from Project Vida includes a licensed professional counselor or licensed clinical social worker, who rotate between two campuses. Availability tends to fill up within the first three months of the school year, although clinicians can take new students in the middle of the school year if their clients finish their treatment plan early.

At the Ysleta Independent School District, students, staff and their families can access free treatment for mental health or substance abuse through Care Solace, which connects people to off-campus providers.

Borderland Rainbow Center offers LGBTQ youth and adults individual therapy, group therapy and peer support groups. Individual therapy is available on a sliding scale based on income.

NAMI El Paso offers programs in English and Spanish for parents and caregivers of children and adolescents who are diagnosed or not yet diagnosed with a mental health condition. 

Options besides therapy

There is a shortage of counselors and therapists in El Paso, but there are other services that can be beneficial in different ways from therapy, Wingate said.

Emergence Health Network offers caseworker services. A caseworker with a degree in psychology can provide psychological education to both parent and child. Social workers are overlooked, but they can help people learn coping skills and lay the groundwork for addressing mental health issues before jumping into therapy, she said.

Disclosure: Emergence Health Network, El Paso Community College and the Socorro Independent School District partnered with El Paso Matters to sponsor the mental health forum. Sponsors are not involved in the editorial content of El Paso Matters. The newsroom’s policy on editorial independence can be found here.

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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