Texas State University officials announced March 31 a more than $20 million award as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act that was passed by the House, Senate and finally signed into law by President Joe Biden March 16.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s office began soliciting projects from across the district, from San Antonio to Austin, to find key projects that could be most impactful in the communities, said Kate Stotesbery, Doggett’s deputy chief of staff and communications director.

Among the funding awarded to the university is $2 million that will be used by Melinda Villagran, director of Texas State University Translational Health Research Center and project lead, to create a mental health map of Central Texas.

The idea came to her during COVID-19 lockdowns that left her wondering about health issues.

“It doesn’t tell you what to think; it tells you what to think about. It gives you current information to make your own decisions about a health issue,” Villagran said. “My thinking was that we needed a COVID[-19] dashboard for everything.”

The dashboard will be a “one-stop-shop” resource fueled by publicly available data that will be for service providers, clinicians, health care facilities, policy makers and anyone who is involved in understanding mental health issues, Villagran said.

Prior to writing the proposal to Doggett, Villagran met with various mental health organizations from Austin to San Antonio. Now that the university has secured funding, the goal will be to put information on the map that the organizations believe would make it a useful tool.

One of the partners that Villagran and her team will work with to gather data is Austin Public Health.

“APH is unique because they have this open data portal online where they make all kinds of data publicly available for anyone who wants to see it or use it,” Villagran said. “This is, in my mind, a very transparent way to help people that live in this area know more about health issues. But again, they might not have the training or the time to go through all of the data.”

Overall, the goal is to localize data in ways that help mental health service providers, community members and policy makers understand and use the best and most current data to make informed decisions.

Over the past six months, the Translational Health Research Center has been working to receive international accreditation from the Data Science Council of America that was finally awarded April 6.

“That will let us tap into the very best data scientists to build this project,” Villagran said. “We just want to make sure we have the best people, the best process and that we are very inclusive of the community groups that really matter to us because they are the ones that are going to use it.”

The team consists of Villagran, a psychologist, a person in health administration and a person in computer science, as of now, but they will continue to grow once they receive the funding.

“We feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work on this, and what we do at Texas State is applied health research. Our mission is rooted in applied health research with community partners, and this is a perfect way for us to do research and work on things that can really have a positive impact on the health of people in Central Texas,” Villagran said.