As an Austinite and a mental health nurse, of course I would find and post an article about budget cuts that affect Austin and Texas in general. This article below is about just that. However, I also wish to provide this article as a way to help bring the “Big Picture” down to our level. The issue is funding for the mentally ill. Our law makers can legislate whatever they deem necessary, but you cannot legislate away mental illness. These are the people in our midst who are the most vulnerable and who need the most help. Why is it fiscally responsible to deny the funding to care for this part of our population but to continue to fund a war? I don’t understand, but then I must have different priorities.
My concern is that more and more mental health funding is being lost yet no solution to the problem of helping this population is being put forth. Mental illness exists. We need to be dealing with the problem instead of hoping it will “just go away”.
This article is from the Community Impact Newspaper of Central Austin and can be found here.
By Andrea Leptinsky and Beth Wade Wednesday, 15 December 2010
Decreased funding may transfer burden to taxpayers
CENTRAL AUSTIN — On any given day, more than 1,200 people are waiting to receive treatment for a mental health disorder through Austin Travis County Integral Care, the local authority for behavioral health and developmental disabilities.
If the Texas Legislature, which reconvenes in January, moves forward with proposed plans to cut $134 million in mental health services in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years, this number would most likely increase. ATCIC would immediately cut 700 active mental health patients from its program, leaving them untreated. As a result, more of the burden would be placed on taxpayers to make up for other forms of treatment and fewer programs would exist to treat individuals with brain disorders.
“As a taxpayer, joe average will end up spending more for law enforcement, health care and related services than the foregone cost of behavioral health prevention and treatment,” said Mike Abkowitz, interim executive director of Front Steps, the managing organization of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless located at 500 E. Seventh St. “Average joe should care because he, a family member or a close friend could experience a mental health crisis at any time. When that happens, Joe will want those services and providers to be available to provide … the necessary treatment and support.”
In the last year, ATCIC served more than 18,500 individuals and families in Travis County, offering numerous services and programs year-round. ATCIC receives $25 million annually to provide behavioral health care, said David Evans, ATCIC executive director. Even if ATCIC had to cut just 10 percent from its budget, the immediate effect would be significant.
“If we, as an agency, through every which way took a 10 percent reduction, we can do the math and see the numbers of people it would affect,” Evans said. “The impact to the agency would be $2.5 million; however, what I think is important is that it is not an impact on the agency, it’s an impact on the community—everyone.”
ATCIC provides a 24-hour crisis hotline that allows individuals suffering from a mental disorder to call to ask for help, a doctor’s appointment or if they are having thoughts of suicide. By calling 472-HELP, ATCIC is able to dispatch a team to that person’s location or provide a doctor available to treat the individual, reducing the possibility of self harm, harm toward others or committing a crime. If legislators take funding away from state mental health agencies, services such as the hotline may be the first to go.
“What we are seeing in budget proposals—it’s dramatic,” said State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “We will have to look at the option of closing beds, pushing more onto streets and pushing more into ERs. We’re talking thousands of adults and thousands of children not receiving services because there’s no other place to cut.”
Only a small portion of the state’s budget goes toward mental health funding, Howard said. In a 2007 report by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors when ranking the states’ per capita mental health spending, Texas’ per capita spending of $34.57 ranked 50th, only above New Mexico.
And, because mental health care funding is taken from the state’s discretionary funds—rather than funding that is reserved for certain state entities under state law—it is “in the position of being one of the only things we have to cut,” she said.
“How can we tolerate losing funds when we’re already so close to the bottom of the barrel?” said Cathy Weaver, president of National Alliance of Mental Illness Austin. “Early intervention and prevention of chronic illness saves lives.”
Mentally ill in the jail
If the budget cuts take effect, officials from the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and ATCIC said the result could lead to more mentally ill inmates at the jail, as preventive programs and mental hospital space becomes nonexistent due to the state’s lack in funding.
On any given day the jail’s population fluctuates between 2,400 and 2,600 inmates, and of that, more than 400 have been identified as special needs because of their mental health status, said TCSO Maj. Mark Sawa.
“The cuts that happened several years ago already had a ripple effect so [these new cuts] could only have a subsequent ripple effect because the community mental health system is a diversion from the jail system,” Sawa said. “Because of the lack of resources that are dedicated to the community component we just have the exact opposite in place.”
When compared to the Austin State Hospital, which has a peak capacity of 299 patients, the jail could be regarded as the largest mental health facility in Travis County, Evans said.
Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton said the issue of the jail being the largest mental health unit in the county has been on his radar since he was first sworn in six years ago. He said the problem is not only a lack of funding, but also a lack of pressure on elected officials to make it a priority.
“I think that we as citizens need to hold our legislators—people that we elect—accountable, and we are not doing that. We forget real quickly what our concerns are, and mental health is a serious issue,” Hamilton said.
Having a voice
According to state legislators, Austinites are encouraged to voice their opinion on mental health funding to their local state representatives and senators.
“The Texas Legislature has made great strides in the funding of mental health services; however, with the current budget outlook, maintaining these resources will be very difficult,” Howard said. “Constituents must contact their legislators and detail how these services have positively affected their families and how the use of these measures has averted tragedies or costlier measures, such as suicide or incarceration. Citizens must put a face to the issue.”
Beth Olson-Drew, a legislative aide for Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said people should explain how Texas will see a significant return in its investment by adequately funding mental health preventive services.
“This is going to be a hard Legislature, and it’s going to get ugly,” Olson-Drew said. “But that doesn’t mean that anything you have to say means less. Every single [legislator] has some sort of connection to someone with a mental illness. This is not transportation—this is an issue that can really negatively and positively affect people.”
Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, said citizens should participate in the Legislature’s public hearings to speak about the mental health issues Austin will face if it does not receive sufficient funding.
“Be prepared to testify about the impact of the proposed cuts when committees … in the House and Senate hold public hearings,” Naishtat said.
- MPs urge ‘serious’ money for mental health (ctv.ca)
- Mental Health Services Strained by State Budget Cuts (skwillms.wordpress.com)
- Few schools can afford mental health care that students need (chron.com)
- Treatment of mentally ill prison inmates under fire (canada.com)
- You: Let’s keep our mentally ill youth out of detention – Houston Chronicle (news.google.com)
- State Cuts Put Officers on Front Lines of Mental Care (nytimes.com)