Leadership team faces challenge

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As published in the Denton Record-Chronicle editorial, Aug. 23, 2015

Denton community leaders are embarking on a difficult quest to improve the delivery of mental health services throughout the county. We believe this issue will sit atop our "to do" list for years to come. Thousands of lives depend on the newly formed Denton County Behavioral Leadership Team getting it right.

Social service agencies, with United Way of Denton County in the lead, will be challenged to step up their games if we are to meet the goal, which former Denton City Council member Joe Mulroy put this way: A person or a family in crisis should be able to pick up the phone, call a single number and then get the help they need until their lives are put back together.

It doesn't work that way now for people who don't have a lot of money or who go without health insurance that covers treatment for mental illness. Confusion often reigns. People in need get shuffled from pillar to post with no one taking responsibility for helping them. Some people get so frustrated that they end up seeking services in Dallas County or Tarrant County.

The challenges ahead appear staggeringly steep.

For example, fully one-third of military veterans in Denton County suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or aftermath of a traumatic brain injury. Too often, they self-medicate with alcohol or illegal drugs, which can land them in jail.

A recent United Way report refers to the Denton County Jail as our "#1 mental illness inpatient facility." The sad fact is that police have few options when, for example, they confront someone waving a pistol at family members or destroying property in a rage. Even though the perpetrator clearly is mentally ill, about all they can do is take him to jail.

This fact is ominous because county jails are not funded to treat mental illness. About all jailers can do is coordinate appointments between health care professionals and inmates or make sure inmates have access to prescribed medications.

Denton County MHMR is the primary public agency responsible for coordinating care for the mentally ill.

The Texas Department of State Health Services estimates that 13,400 adults in Denton County meet the criteria for a severe and persistent mental illness. As of 2012, Denton County MHMR had the capacity to serve 1,800 of them, or just 13 percent of the total in need.

The state health department estimates that 5,000 children in Denton County meet the criteria for a severe emotional disturbance. MHMR has the capacity to serve less than 10 percent of them.

Mulroy and his fellow citizens on the leadership team have their work cut out for them. The United Way reports that Texas ranked 49th in spending for mental health in 2010. A lot of states spent four or five times the amount that Texas spent per capita to alleviate suffering. Lack of services affects poor people disproportionately.

Texas has always been stingy when it comes to funding programs such as Medicaid and food stamps for people who need them. It doesn't take long until conservative lawmakers and local elected officials start tossing around phrases such as "welfare cheat" or "freeloader."

But improving funding for and delivery of mental health services is a different animal.

We understand the natural tendency to be skeptical, even cynical, about enlarging government bureaucracies. But we are seeing too many of our friends and neighbors in pain to turn a blind eye. This newspaper will be covering the leadership team's progress in the months to come. We invite you to join the debate about how to fix the problem.