It can be difficult for parents to tell the difference between adolescent behavior and symptoms of mental health issues, but local experts said Tuesday that a degree in psychology isn’t required.

An estimated one in five kids struggles with a mental disorder in a given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They’re rebellious and they’re a little bit angry and cranky — and part of that is developmental because as a teenager, it is your job to start figuring out: ‘Who am I in this world [and] who do I want to be?” Delores Haines, clinical director for children’s behavioral health services at the Center for Health Care Services.

But if they start isolating themselves from family and friends and are “losing interest in things that have always brought them happiness and joy,” Haines said, that may be a sign that something more serious is going on.

Simply listening is an important start, she said. “You may be shocked at some of the things that you hear, but for a young person to know that there is an adult out there that is taking time out of their own schedule” to listen nonjudgmentally has an impact.

“Every one of you in this room right now may be an adult that is trusted by a young person and you don’t even know it,” she said.

Haines spoke as part of the San Antonio Report’s panel, “Crisis and Opportunity: Youth Mental Health in Bexar County” at Clarity Child Guidance Center, on Tuesday to share insights into how to improve awareness of and access to youth mental health care.

It’s an issue that has garnered increased attention and funding in recent years as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to ripple through children and teens at all stages of development.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released 2021 data that showed that teen girls are experiencing record-high levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk, while LGBTQ teens continue to face extremely high levels of violence and mental health challenges. That’s amid increased attacks on queer rights at the Texas Legislature.

“You don’t have to be a counselor,” said Diana Lujan, school-based program manager at Jewish Family Service of San Antonio. “A little empathy goes a long way and just listening to what somebody might be going through.”

Parents — and really everyone with young people in their life — should take note of other changes, such as in hygiene or friend groups, as possible signs of depression or anxiety, said Roxanna Perez, lead licensed counselor for Communities in Schools San Antonio.

Given the shortage of mental health care providers and the barriers many families face even trying to get an appointment, it’s critical that the adults in young people’s lives check in with them, she said.

Parents are often afraid to ask questions related to drug use or self-harm out of fear that it might inspire their child to start those behaviors, said Jessica Knudsen, CEO of Clarity.

“That doesn’t happen — that’s a fallacy,” Knudsen said. “Ask those questions, too. … If they know it’s not a taboo topic, and that it’s a safe place… you might be really surprised as to what you hear.”

Technology can be both a help and a cause of suffering, said Anna Hurd, a high school student and member of the San Antonio Youth Commission, which launched its second annual? local Teen Mental Health survey last week.

“We use our phones for everything,” said Hurd, 16. “We text, We FaceTime, we look at social media. I think it’s one of the biggest ways that teenagers cope, is they anesthetize with their cell phones. … Teenagers don’t want to find other methods when they found one that kind of numbs what they’re going through.”

But the internet also offers today’s teens “a large [cache of] resources that can really help people — but they have to know about it.”

Anna Hurd, left, a member of the San Antonio Youth Commission responds during a panel discussion on youth mental health.
Anna Hurd, second from left, is a member of the San Antonio Youth Commission. Hurd, 16, responds during a panel discussion on youth mental health. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Nearly half of the local teenagers surveyed in spring 2022 by the San Antonio Youth Commission and Project Worth Teen Ambassadors reported feeling “helpless, hopeless, numb or like nothing matters.” On average, LGBTQ youth reported those feelings 20% more often than straight kids.

One of the biggest barriers parents and young people face is a lack of mental health care providers in Texas, Knudsen said, but there are some bills filed in the state legislature this session that could ease those shortages.

Several, including Senate Bill 1211, would create a fund to recruit and retain mental health care workers. Another, House Bill 1979, would allow provisionally licensed therapists, such as interns, to be able to bill Medicaid. “That would almost be an instance pipeline that would get some more appointments out there and help with access,” Knudsen said.

“If you know your senator or have an ability to help push that through, those are two goals we think would really make an impact from the workforce perspective.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at