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More on mental health

Stephen Schnee, the executive director of MHMRA of Harris County, and Octavio N. Martinez, Jr, the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and a clinical professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, make the case again for not cutting mental health services in the state budget.

The Houston-based nonprofit organization Children At Risk found that in 2009, an estimated 229,055 kids in Harris County had a diagnosable mental illness. MHMRA of Harris County serves an average of 2,490 kids per month, just a small fraction of those who desperately need treatment. Houston’s mental health system is already stretched to its limits – it can take weeks for kids to receive noncrisis services, exacerbating their symptoms and creating a need for even more intense treatment and services. If devastating budget cuts come to fruition, this will further restrict access to care. See this KTRK story for more.

Texas ranks 49th in mental health expenditures per capita – how much worse can it get? We are already almost at rock bottom. If lawmakers cut funding for public mental health services, some children and families will have no place to go for care that shouldn’t be considered optional. Is this really the best we have to offer our kids? And if it is, what message are we sending to the future leaders of Texas?

That message would be “Dan Patrick’s property taxes are more important than you”. Any questions?

If we deny children appropriate mental health care now, we’ll just pay a higher cost in the future. Left untreated, kids with emotional disturbances are more likely to drop out of school – a 2008 national study found that in 2005-06, only 43 percent of kids with a mental illness graduated from high school. Children At Risk reports that high school dropouts cost Texans a huge amount in the long run – an estimated loss of up to $9.6 billion per cohort. Additionally, high school dropouts contribute to higher rates of crime, incarceration and use of welfare and social services. Given these statistics, it makes sound fiscal sense to provide adequate mental health care for youth at an early age, or else taxpayers will just pick up a much bigger tab in the future.

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This is an issue where everyone can agree. Hospital districts, community leaders, advocates, sheriffs and police chiefs across Texas believe that any cutback in funding for mental health will likely result in increased traffic to hospital emergency rooms, juvenile justice facilities and jails, and that equals increased costs for government and taxpayers. Underfunding mental health services simply shifts the cost to other agencies and to local government authorities, whose budgets are already inadequate.

It’s estimated that 52 percent of youth in the Harris County juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition. The Texas Public Policy Foundation found that youth who become career criminals cost taxpayers and victims an estimated $2 million during their lifetimes. Community-based services for youth with mental illness like those provided by MHMRA are far less expensive, and in most cases, far more effective.

Sure, this is an issue on which everyone should agree, but let’s be real. The same TPPF that recognizes the cost of skimping on early intervention is one of the leading voices right now arguing that we don’t have a budget shortfall, we just need to adjust the level of services we’re providing to the amount of revenue we have and ignore all that wailing and gnashing of teeth about the effect that would have. They don’t even agree with themselves. Good luck getting anyone in their thrall to agree with you.

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