Senator Jane Nelson
P.O. Box 12068, State Capitol
Austin, Texas 78711
Tel. (512) 463-0112
Fax (512) 463-0923

OP-ED
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 30, 2014
Contact: Megan Hanson, (512) 463-0112

Advancing Mental Health Awareness in Texas

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, and it comes during a time of great transition in how we address one of the most challenging issues facing our state.

Mental health is a complex policy issue. The levels of need vary from patient to patient. Not everyone with a problem recognizes they need help. Those who do often fail to follow through on the treatment they need. There are civil liberty issues involved. And individuals with mental health challenges present in different settings, often during a crisis.

We can treat individuals with mental health issues in one of a few ways. The most efficient, cost-effective and humane way to treat mental illness is in a clinical setting. Unfortunately, the largest provider of mental health care in Texas is our criminal justice system, as many of those who need help first find it in jail. All too often we end up providing mental health treatment in emergency rooms. And sadly, we continue to discover that people need mental health services after it's too late and a tragedy has occurred.

Last session, the Texas Legislature took significant steps to make sure people are treated in appropriate settings and to avoid preventable tragedies by increasing funding for mental health and substance abuse by $298 million, one of the largest investments in state history.

As a fiscal conservative, it was important to me that these funds are targeted to programs where we can measure the impact of our investment. Already, we are seeing results. We have removed over 5,000 Texans needing community-based services from waiting lists. This is so important because individuals who recognize they have a mental illness and are willing to get treatment have already won half the battle. We need to make sure these individuals can access care, and we are well on our way to eliminating waiting lists altogether.

We are also continuing to provide mental health services for our veterans, including through a program I was proud to create in 2009 -- peer-to-peer counseling. Last year alone, over 600 trained veteran volunteers reported more than 53,000 interactions with their peers.

By providing grants to local communities, we are enabling them to solve their unique mental health problems in new and innovative ways. In Tarrant County, for example, the local mental health authority is creating a respite program for teenagers with serious mental illness who find themselves in crisis. They are also providing supportive housing to their neediest clients, because it is very difficult for a person to focus on recovery while they are worried about keeping a roof over their head.

Texas is also focusing on early intervention by launching a mental health public awareness campaign this month. The campaign will aim to build awareness about mental illness and substance abuse among teens and young adults, demystify mental illness and equip people to recognize warning signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. Another initiative in our schools will train teachers and others who work closely with young adults to recognize those who may need help and connect them to resources.

These are all positive steps, but in the months ahead it is important that we continue to ensure our investment is achieving the intended results. We should be funding solutions -- not problems. One area we need to strengthen moving forward is prevention. The more we can do to prevent those who need help from sliding to rock bottom, the more effectively we can prevent people with mental illnesses from showing up in our jails and emergency rooms. The greater their chances are for recovery. And the less we will be reading about preventable tragedies.

But in order to prevent mental illness, we all must work together. We need to learn to treat mental illness like any other medical disease, and reduce the stigma so often found today. By ensuring that every parent, teacher, family member and friend knows how to help a person with mental illness, we can help ensure that person not only knows help is available, but is ready and willing to receive the services they need.

SENATOR JANE NELSON represents District 12, including portions of Denton and Tarrant counties. She is chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the highest ranking Republican in the Texas Senate.

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