2019 Legislative Conference Review: The Role of Counties in Addressing Behavioral Health

The 86th Texas legislative session emphasized the importance of mental health for the state.

By Shiloh Perry, Communications Specialist

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The 86th Texas legislative session emphasized the importance of mental health for the state. This was the main message of the conference’s Behavioral Health Funding session. Director of the Texas Tech Mental Health Institute Keino McWhinney joined Deputy Director of the Texas Council of Community Center Lee Johnson on stage to recap the progress made. The panelists outlined why mental health should continue to be a priority, the current state of mental and behavioral health systems in Texas and the roles counties play in accomplishing related improvements. 

Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her and his community.” 
After defining the term for the group of public servants in attendance, McWhinney explained. “Conquering mental health involves hospital systems, cities, academia, Texas child mental health care and counties,” he said. “Until we start thinking of mental health as healthcare and not this abstract other, we are going to fundamentally have problems, whether it be just the way we talk about it, stigma, or the way we fund it.”

Mental health challenges are common, and Texans do not always have access to the help they need, McWhinney said. The need to fix these challenges is more pressing than ever with one in five Americans experiencing a mental health challenge, large or small, during their lifetime. Texas is considered to have a misdistribution of help with more than 80% of its counties deemed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to have shortages of mental health professionals.

Johnson echoed McWhinney’s call for continued work on mental health and the development of county resources. “I don’t have to tell y’all how hard it is to get somebody into a state hospital,” he said. “Locally purchased inpatient bed capacity is a really important way that local health authorities have been able to augment that loss of capacity in the state hospital system.” Johnson explained that an increase in the number of inpatient psychiatric beds across the state is just one of the many improvements the Legislature made. 

Texas is adding 338 total beds through the state’s Health and Human Services’ state hospital capacity expansion. State lawmakers appropriated approximately $450 million in new funds for mental health and substance use disorder improvements, Johnson said. 

Additional legislation expanded the scope of resources to include early identification measures and expanded the role of counties in the state’s behavioral health system
Notably, the office of the sheriff, or its representative, is required to be part of a mental health authority’s governing body. While lawmakers have advanced the state’s investment in mental health, Johnson said there is still work to do. “Today we’ve got so many people waiting in county jail to get access to an inpatient bed. The Legislature is going to have to continue to make investments so this system can be where it needs to be for the folks out there.”