Seventeen-year-old K.J. remembers being a freshman at a new high school.

“It wasn’t easy,” K.J. recalled. “And to make it worse, a couple of kids decided to pick on me and make me into a target.”

“K.J.” is one of the many teens who shared their experiences about feeling low with researchers at Stony Brook University on New York’s Long Island. The researchers then used their stories to create Project YES, a mental health interventional program for youth ages 11 to 17 who struggle with anxiety and depression.

Project YES is a three-part online course that takes participants through common situations – such as someone ignoring a friend in a school hallway – then prompts participants to consider how they might approach the problem.

San Antonio City Council recently allocated $260,000 to implement Project YES locally, in part because of the toll the coronavirus pandemic has had on the mental health of preteens and teens.

“I don’t have to tell you how much depression and anxiety have been heightened for everybody, but especially adolescents during the pandemic,” Dr. Junda Woo, medical director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, told City Council on Nov. 12. “There is a lack of mental health providers, especially for adolescents with low income or no health insurance.”

Metro Health is partnering with UT Health San Antonio’s teen health program to take Project YES and make it work for the Bexar County area. With the City-provided funding, Metro Health and UT Health San Antonio aim to translate the program into Spanish and interview local youth to include Black and Indigenous teen experiences in the program by the end of the year.

“We felt that it needed to be more inclusive of other populations, not just what they saw at Stony Brook in New York,” said Dr. Kristen Plastino, the director of UT Teen Health, UT Health San Antonio’s teen health program.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) praised the decision to fund the program.

“Our young people have felt so much of the pandemic,” she said in a statement. “Their educational lives have been dramatically changed. Some, if not all, of their most revered rites of passage have been canceled or modified. While not at high risk for the worst health impacts of COVID, they are at high risk for depression and anxiety because of COVID. That’s why it’s critical we invest in evidence-based mental health programs like Project YES.”

The program has been shown to cut symptoms of depression in half in youth who have gone through the online modules, Woo told City Council members. Plastino said it also has the benefit of being more accessible than in-person counseling, which can be cost-prohibitive.

Even when cost isn’t an issue, scheduling an appointment with a therapist can still be challenging. UT Teen Health and the University Health system have two full-time mental health counselors on staff to see teens free of charge, but both are usually fully booked, Plastino said. But she hopes Project YES can act as a first step before meeting with a counselor one-on-one.

Metro Health and UT Teen Health also plan to work with community youth-oriented organizations and area middle and high schools to get Project YES in front of young people over the course of next year. They hope to reach 8,000 youth, Plastino said, all of whom will take surveys before and after each 30-minute module to measure the level of hopelessness and lack of control over their lives that they feel.

“This project has been shown to reduce hopelessness, self-hate,” Plastino said. “It gives perceived improvement in control, as well as the capacity to set your own goals – like behavioral goals – and how to maintain those goals over time.”

Metro Health has identified mental health as one of its strategic priority focuses, while UT Teen Health maintains that addressing mental health is crucial to looking at adolescent health holistically. Plastino emphasized that Project YES was only one element addressing teen mental health.

“This isn’t the golden egg,” Plastino said. “It’s just one tool in our toolbox.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.