By Sahar Chmais
Strategizing for a mental health center in Hays County is back on track after efforts for the facility were derailed by the pandemic.
A year ago, a Mental Health Task Force was assembled by Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra, and on Tuesday Nov. 2, commissioners court approved funding for a Needs Assessment for a Mental Health Facility. Funds for the Needs Assessment are not to exceed $250,000, approved unanimously.
The assessment will identify needs on a detailed level. Not only will it assess the conditions and age groups and address veterans needs, but it will figure out efficient infrastructure, types of treatment programs, staffing, operation funds and make the facility a reality, said Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell (R). The county will collaborate and receive input from other mental health centers in surrounding areas. These include: Austin Oaks Hospital, Texas State University, Hill Country Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities and Bluebonnet Trails Community Services.
Several years ago, if a mental health patient needed to be stabilized in a hospital, they could find a bed. That is no longer the case given the population growth, Shell explained. He believes having this facility is long overdue for the county.
Experts have also weighed in on the need for a mental health facility.
“Research has conclusively revealed that providing mental health/substance abuse services ultimately reduces costs in other areas,” read a letter from Dr. Toni Watt, Professor and Chair of Sociology at Texas State University and Mental Health Task Force member. “Mental health disorders contribute to unnecessary ER visits, increase homelessness, and raise incarceration rates.”
Some residents shared stories from personal experience with county commissioners, echoing the need for a mental health facility.
In 2019, a mother called the county judge’s office regarding her suicidal son because she did not know where to turn and was out of options. The mother, who lived out of state, was told by the authorities that her son had to be in the act before anyone would respond. There was a Facebook Live video of her son standing on the ledge, and that is when the San Marcos Police Department responded.
“It shouldn’t come to this,” said Anita Collins, the judge’s executive assistant, after she told the mother’s story. “It shouldn’t come to a social media video of him in the act of committing suicide to get him the help that he needs.”
There are a variety of issues that residents want addressed through the facility. Retired Army Colonel Jack Pryor spoke for the veterans in need of mental health assistance.
Between 33% and 35% of veterans need help in this area, Pryor said. Sometimes soldiers come out of service with a bag full of drugs, addicted to prescription painkillers.
But the problem does not end there.
When soldiers leave the service, they are essentially homeless and oftentimes have to stay with family or friends, Pryor described the situation. They also find things have changed and do not feel like they fit in. Veterans also cannot find jobs when they leave the service, he added.
Factor these issues into untreated PTSD and it can lead to veterans self medicating with alcohol and drugs, Pryor said. Having a local facility, close for veterans to get help, would be beneficial, Pryor told commissioners.
The next step to facilitate the Needs Assessment will be to develop a Request for Qualifications, to determine who is best qualified to conduct the assessment.