Texas rural mental health advocates call for change in 2023 | KLBK | KAMC

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As lawmakers prepare to return to the Texas Capitol this month, many rural communities hope the legislature will make significant investments in their mental health resources.

Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner handles mental health cases not only in her Amarillo County seat, but in more than two dozen rural counties around the Texas Panhandle. Although Tanner said she has prosecuted more than 5,000 cases during her tenure, the closest mental health hospital to her constituents is more than 200 miles away.

“I can tell you some very sad stories,” he said. “I don’t want people to tell me, ‘Well, she killed herself.’ That’s what we have to stop.”

He said only one in five people with mental health needs in the cases he has handled have made it to a state hospital. Often when they do, Tanner added, they break free without proper care and end up back in the system.

“There is never a bed available,” he said. “We are just behind with the same people.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick estimated at a news conference last month that of some 2,500 mental health beds in Texas, at least 1,000 are empty due to nursing shortages. He listed rural mental health access as one of his top priorities for the 88th legislative session.

“As I’ve traveled the state I’ve seen the need,” Patrick said. “We don’t have a mental health center in the Panhandle, so I propose we build one there. This is something we have to do for our communities.”

He estimated that his plan to add a new state hospital in Amarillo and hundreds of beds at existing locations will cost $2.2 billion. He was specific in advocating for more beds in El Paso, 300 more in Wichita Falls and Terrell, as well as 140 more in the Rio Grande Valley.

Patrick also proposed new investment in tuition coverage and pay increases for nurses to reduce staffing shortages.

In Kingsville, Dr. Steve Bain, of the new Institute for Rural Mental Health Initiatives, said the priority should be on postgraduate programs that train new mental health professionals and encourage placement in rural communities. The Texas A&M Board of Regents approved the institute this November as the first center of its kind for rural mental health research and education.

“Our state ranks very low in delivering mental health resources, particularly to the remote population,” Bain said. “We have to be constantly connected to these communities, and that will take time and organization through our institute. It’s going to take research and research funding. And it will be necessary to put our graduate students who need their practice and internships in these rural communities.”

In testimony before the Texas House of Representatives, Bain told lawmakers that one in five Texas children has a mental health disorder. Between 2019 and 2021 alone, the Texas Poison Control Network recorded a 50% increase in suspected suicide calls among teens.

“We are at an unprecedented moment in our state’s history where great leaders like you can make a difference for children, their families, and those who are committed to the holistic success of our young Texans,” he testified. “With your support, we can and must expand rural mental health programs.”

Tanner said he is optimistic that this session will bring tangible improvements.

“Lt. Governor Patrick said there is money in the budget,” he said, adding that the Senate Finance Committee was “very open” to his proposal for a mental health hospital in Amarillo. The Amarillo Area Foundation has already donated seven acres for the facility, along with local medical school students at the Texas Tech University Health Science Center, and she said it makes sense.

“I pray that it happens. It will be my greatest adventure and my greatest success as a judge to do this before I leave here,” she said.

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