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Editorial: Yet another study reminds of us dire needs in mental health care

Longview News-Journal - 9/17/2017

If you are among those concerned about our city's struggles with the homeless or think increasing jail populations and costs are issues that must be addressed, we direct your attention to a recent study on Northeast Texas mental health.

In a nutshell, the research found mental health in our region is among the worst in the state. A key reason, it suggested, is a lack of treatment facilities.

Not clear what that has to do with jails and homelessness?

The sad fact is the lack of treatment facilities and resources has made local police and jailers the de facto frontline caretakers for the chronically mentally ill among us. That means mental health problems are rampant in local jails, often because the illness was a primary factor in the conduct that landed the person behind bars.

The cost of caring for and supervising mentally ill inmates makes them two to three times more expensive to house. And once released to our streets, they often stop taking their medications, which lands them back in trouble with the law and back behind bars.

Between jail stays, however, those with untreated illnesses often struggle to hold jobs, keep a roof over their heads and otherwise care for themselves. Many of them, then, are adding to the population of those with nowhere to go but our streets.

As Gregg County judges have been telling us for years, this cycle amounts to a revolving door for those who are not receiving adequate treatment and so become regular guests of the jails after unsuccessful stays outside.

In effect, the state's largest jails have become its largest and most expensive mental health facilities, and that includes the lockups here in Gregg County. It adds up to a crisis that has proved increasingly costly to local taxpayers, one that is impractical and too often inhumane.

According to the recent Northeast Texas study by the Prevention Resource Center, the lack of treatment options also is leading to higher rates of suicide as those in need of help lose hope and take their own lives. In some area counties, the suicide rate was twice the statewide average.

Other risk factors highlighted in the study, which was conducted for the East Texas Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, included our region's higher rates of poverty and drug and alcohol abuse.

None of this is new, but with each new study we are reminded that mental health remains a largely ignored and untreated root cause of many problems we are facing.

However, there are encouraging efforts underway. Those include an innovative mental health docket in our local courts, which takes pains to work with those who need help. We are heartened as well by regional efforts to leverage funds to provide more care options for those in mental health crisis.

Dr. Stanley Williams, managing director at Community HealthCore in Longview, in an interview with our Jimmy Isaac, also pointed to increasing collaboration among a variety of area agencies as a positive sign.

While we agree that efforts building on local resources must be part of the solution, that alone will not be enough. The problems we are facing have been produced by many years of state and federal budget cutting that has left swaths of our state and nation without a mental health safety net.

While our local collaborations and efforts are positive, they will always be inadequate and isolated. Until lawmakers face up to the magnitude of this problem, it will continue to grow - and its costs will continue to increase.

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