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Advocates Rally for More Mental Health Funding

Marissa Barnett, KUT News

Advocates and lawmakers rallied at the Texas Capitol today to urge more state funding for mental health services.

Texas now ranks 49th in per capita spending for mental health care services. 

In the last session, the legislature made few changes to mental health funding. But as Texas’ population grows, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) policy coordinator Greg Hansch says mental health spending also has to increase.

Hansch says that limited funding for mental health care has most affected community health services, which provide individual counseling, group therapy and education. According to Hansch, community mental health services are more cost-effective for the state.

“We want to see lawmakers make a sound investment in our state’s mental health system,” he said. “People aren’t able to access services so they end up out on the streets, sleeping under bridges and exposed to the elements.”

“They end up in our emergency rooms and prisons, which cost a lot of money for our state,” he continued. “We could be using our dollars more effectively.”

State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), one of many speakers at the event, said often prisons are just housing for people suffering from mental illness. Of the 151,000 people incarcerated in Texas, Whitmire says 32,000 sought mental health services before their first arrest. But due to budget cuts, they did not receive care that could have avoided an arrest.

Of course most of those diagnosed with a mental illness are not violent and have no reason to be imprisoned.

For many advocates, like Rep. Naomi Gonzalez (D-El Paso), eliminating the stigma of mental illness is part of having a successful mental health system.

“For someone to admit that they have a problem, that they are not feeling well and to ask for that help; to make that first step, to make that connection with someone and ask for help,” Rep. Gonzalez said during the event. “That takes strength.”

Beyond changes to the state’s budget, there are a number of bills mental health advocates would like to see pass during this session.  One is a bill (HB 593) that would require Texas to participate in the expansion of the Medicaid programs.

Also, a bill (SB 126) filed by Senator Jane Nelson that would create a mental health and substance abuse public reporting system.