Health & Science

State Health Agency Doing Community Outreach While Under Fire

Department of State Health Services tours to promote awareness of mental illness in young people despite recent audit.

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Houston was the second stop on the summer awareness tour, which is called “Speak Your Mind.” The goal of the tour is to spark “community conversations,” according to Roderick Swan, director of contractor services for the Department of State Health Services. He says the goal is to reach troubled youth before their mental illnesses spiral out of control, and to make community groups aware of resources available to anyone having a mental health or substance abuse crisis.

A diverse group of mental health counselors, teachers, volunteers and advocates gathered Tuesday at the United Way in Houston. There were panels and break-out sessions to discuss how to spot symptoms of mental illness and how to deal with the shame surrounding it.  

“What the data is telling us is that 75 percent of mental health and substance abuse issues are occurring with people prior to the age of 24,” Swan said. “So it’s really important that we spark this community conversation.”

Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said he attended because people with untreated mental illness are committing crimes and overwhelming the county jail. The Harris County jail has become a de-facto mental health hospital, the largest in the state, because interventions at the community level aren’t enough, he said. Up to 3,000 inmates at a time are on psychiatric medications.

Bernstein called the conference “a good start” but said an awareness campaign can only go so far.

“What we hope to see in county government is not just awareness but a commitment to resources and better execution in the way those resources are being spent,” Bernstein added.

The Department of State Health Services just underwent a difficult assessment process called “Sunset Review.” It happens to most state agencies about every 12 years.

During a Sunset Review, a special commission scrutinizes the target agency from head to toe to determine if it should continue existing.

The Sunset report on the Department of State Health Services came out in May. It criticized the agency for not dealing with the overcrowded state mental hospitals and for failing to update outpatient treatment programs.

And it said the agency had “no rational plan” for distributing mental health money on the local level.

State Senator Joan Huffman is a Republican whose district extends south from Houston down to Freeport. She called the criticisms in the review fair and said things need to change fast:

“We had this last session put additional funds, substantial funds, an extra $300 million or so into mental health,” Huffman said. “And we’re hoping we see some results from that investment. It was a long time coming and we need to invest more.”

When asked about the criticisms, Swan said the agency is working hard to speed up services with the new infusion of state money.

“In February of 2013, the wait list was over 5,000 people for adults and in February of this year it’s less than 800 people,” he noted. “So we’re seeing that the dollars that have been appropriated are really helping people in the community.”   

A second Sunset report, due out this fall, will look at the wider array of different state programs and agencies involved in health issues. It could answer the question of whether the Department of State Health Services should be re-organized or perhaps broken up into separate parts.

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