As counties across Texas struggle to provide mental health care to its low-income residents, nonprofits around Brazoria County are stepping up to fill the gap.
About 1 in 5 Americans have a mental health condition, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America. Suicide is a top 10 leading causes of death for people ages 10 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and ranks as the second leading cause of death for those ages 10-34.
Local nonprofits like the United Way of Brazoria County are pushing for more funding for rehabilitation, substance abuse recovery and other services for mental health care.
Statewide access to care
Texas ranks low on the national list for mental health care access, and funding continues to be a persistent issue for providers.
In Brazoria County, mental health care funding in the county has remained relatively stagnant for the past decade. While the county increased its mental health budget by $45,000 in fiscal year 2016-17, the increase went to county jail services. Prior to that, the last county mental health and retardation budget increase was in 2008, according to county documents.
“The number of calls that we get from people who need financial help has increased tremendously—they need help with food, help with rent, help with clothes,” said Ava McClendon, volunteer coordinator at the National Alliance of Mental Illness Gulf Coast.
County funds are funneled to area nonprofits that can provide mental health services through a mix of county, state, federal and private donations.
In addition to providing services, one of the functions of nonprofits like NAMI is advocacy. NAMI has clients who provide testimony at the state Capitol during the 85 legislative session about how mental health care has affected their lives, McClendon said.
“We are trained on how to tell our story and how mental health issues have affected us,” McClendon said. “We have people with us who have been directly affected by bills.”
While the state population continues to grow, funding was slashed during the 2017 legislative session as lawmakers approved a $350 million cut to the Texas Health and Human Services budget. While most of the cuts related to state funding for Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements, the new budget did not leave room for growth of new programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said Kyle Piccola, chief government and community relations officer at the Arc of Texas.
“The budget didn’t do really anything positive other than maintain some currently provided services,” Piccola said. “One of our biggest concerns now that they haven’t provided any funding to reduce the wait-list is that now people are going to wait 13, 14 or 15 years to be seen, and that the list will continue to grow.”
Nonprofits fill the gap
Many patients who need mental health care often cannot afford the cost of a private practice psychiatrist, especially those who do not accept health insurance or Medicaid.
A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry found only 55.3 percent of office-based psychiatrists surveyed accepted health insurance and only 43.1 percent accepted Medicaid.
The city of Pearland does not have nonprofit services for mental health care, however, services are provided through a few countywide nonprofits.
One of these nonprofits is the Gulf Coast Center, which is one of 39 community centers in the state that offers services under the auspices of the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The Gulf Coast Center provides community-based services and care to patients in Brazoria and Galveston counties. This includes mental health rehabilitation, substance abuse recovery and even transportation to medical facilities. The center has 11 facilities across the two counties, including three locations in Brazoria County.
“This level of access is critical when working with individuals who have severe and persistent mental illness. Respectful, consistent and individualized community-based services increase the likelihood of a person continuing to engage in treatment,” Gulf Coast Center CEO Melissa Tucker said.
Large swathes of Galveston County are considered mental health professional shortage areas, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
According to the center, the Gulf Coast Center was able to provide mental health services to 5,842 adults and 868 children in 2016.
United Way of Brazoria County helps to fund two nonprofits in the county—NAMI and Arc of the Gulf Coast. These nonprofits provide services to those in northern Brazoria County who cannot afford to see a private practitioner.
Some of the services NAMI offers are support, suicide prevention and education, and classes for family members caring for or living with a person with mental illness. NAMI also provides a helpline, McClendon said.
Arc of the Gulf Coast’s goal is to support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. The Arc does this by connecting parents with an assistant who can guide them to mental health resources at their child’s school district.
“As an advocate, our hopes are to go in with the families and educate the families of the resources that schools provide,” Executive Director Melisa McNeil said.
Arc of the Gulf Coast also supports families in crisis situations, providing medication or connecting individuals in need to other resources, with the ultimate goal of leading individuals to live independently.
“If there is a need we can’t provide, we will connect individuals to places like the Salvation Army, Brazoria County United Way, or sometimes even local churches,” Tucker said. “If there is a need for a family that no one else is stepping up for, we take care of it.”
Resources Still Needed
Even with budget increases in the last two years, Brazoria County is still in need of resources.
“We have a problem with enough hospitals and beds in the area,” McClendon said. “I spoke on the phone with a client looking for a psychiatric hospital, and I directed her to one in Richmond. People are going a long way in search of resources. We don’t have enough in our community.”
Texas Council of Community Centers had a list of priorities for the 85th legislative session, which includes repairs and renovations to state hospitals and state-supported living centers for the safety and welfare of residents.
Kyle Funderburk, who is the director of administration at NAMI, said with increased funding, the Brazoria County branch of NAMI could provide more educational programs.
NAMI national offers dozens of classes the NAMI branch in Brazoria County cannot afford to run, Funderburk said.
Most of the funding for NAMI in Brazoria County goes toward educational programs, which are free to the public.
“We don’t want money to be a barrier to anyone in terms of education,” Funderburk said.
The United Way of Brazoria County is advocating for more resources and programs for students at risk for suicide, Community Outreach Director Gloria Luna said.
Nonprofits like United Way are critical to funding and maintaining services for those with mental health disorders, but with limited funding. nonprofits are restricted.
“Funding is a huge key to mental health. There is never enough,” Luna said.
Additional reporting by Joe Giuliani