State hears testimony on Texas mental health gaps
The Texas House of Representatives Select Committee on Mental Health, chaired by Rep. Four Price, met this week to hear testimony about substance abuse, homelessness, veterans and other topics related to improving the ways mental and behavioral health services may be improved in Texas.
In the last legislative session, a Statewide Behavioral Health Coordinating Council was created. The council is made up of 18 agencies charged with developing a five year statewide behavioral health strategy plan. One of the first goals of the council was to identify gaps in services.
“It is clear that the committee is sincerely committed to addressing as many gaps in mental services and policies as they can,” said Greg Hansch, public policy director of the National Alliance on Mental Health Texas.
Hansch’s testimony included priorities such as increasing outpatient and inpatient services, pairing jail diversion strategies with increased access to mental health care, expanding supportive housing, providing mental health support for children in foster or kinship care, increasing suicide prevention training and other recommendations.
The Health and Human Services Commission presented the information that an estimated 1.6 million adults and 161,000 children in Texan have a substance use disorder. Of those, 42 percent of adults and 57 percent of children live at or below the federal poverty level and would be eligible for services and treatment. However, less than 6 percent of these eligible individuals are receiving services.
Substance use disorders were also in the national spotlight this week as Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy, wrote to all 50 governors about the urgent need for more doctors to be trained and certified to treat people with prescription opioid and heroin use disorders. Free training is available for providers all across the country and online in medication-assisted treatment that has proven more effective at helping people with opioid use disorders enter into long-term recovery.
Other populations of special interest to the committee included homeless and veterans. Of the homeless population in Texas, 18.7 percent had a serious mental illness and 15.7 percent had a chronic substance use disorder. Texas is home to about 1.6 million veterans, who are more likely than the general population to face homelessness, substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
“Initiatives such as peer-to-peer counseling, veteran treatment courts, justice-involved veteran support and military competency training for mental health professionals demonstrate the responsiveness of elected officials in Texas who have adopted policies and programs that have made a real difference in the lives of Texas Veterans and their families,” said Sean Hanna, director of the Veterans Mental Health Program.
Hanna said he was encouraged by the number of legislators who reached out for information about programs in their district.
“All over the state, elected officials are getting involved to ensure their veterans have the resources and support they need to return and contribute to our communities,” he said.
Ways to improve mental health for children were also discussed. Josette Saxton, director for Texans Care for Children, presented recommendations that improved services for children at risk due to a variety of reasons.
“Addressing children’s mental health isn’t just good for kids and families, it’s critical to the future of our state. We can’t expect kids to grow up to be healthy, successful adults if we’re not addressing their mental health. A student struggling with severe depression is not going to be able to pay close attention in an algebra class,” said Saxton. “All students need to feel safe and supported when they’re at school so they can take on the rigors of learning.”
Saxton said too often, kids with serious mental illness receive services from multiple state agencies, who aren’t always talking with one another. For example, she said juvenile justice officials should coordinate with foster care services to take advantage of resources available in their communities.
The committee is expected to receive additional testimony in September.