Lawmaker calls for increased mental health funding in Texas

January 4, 2013 4:59:12 PM PST
A serious conversation about mental health care in this country has re-emerged in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. On Friday, one local lawmaker called for Texas to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to caring for those in need.

A consistent 25 percent of the inmates at the Harris County Jail are treated for mental health issues which landed them in jail in the first place. It's a psychiatric center of last resort, but it doesn't begin to address what's called the lack of state funding for mental health in Texas, but a new proposal may.

Rhonda White, whose uncle is mentally ill, said, "We called the police. That was all we could do at that point and they couldn't do a thing."

If you want to hear how the mental health system functions in Texas, listen to Rhonda.

"Urinating in the trashcan, throwing things, tearing up the room," she described her uncle's behavior.

On New Year's Day, her 84-year-old uncle set fire to the house she owned. White had taken him to the VA after he became increasingly violent. He was sent home. Now he's in jail, charged with arson.

"At 84 years old, it didn't have to be like that," White said.

That is just one story linked to the cuts in mental health funding over the years. Texas is now ranked last in that spending -- about $36 spent per capita versus a national average of $109. But what happened in Connecticut may change that. Houston lawmaker Sylvester Turner is asking the Texas legislature to increase its funding by $250 million.

"We must move away from the crisis based system, which leaves our jails and emergency rooms as defacto mental health providers, and puts all of us at risk, including our children," Turner said.

It has bipartisan support, Turner says, and the support of Houston's police chief and Harris County's sheriff. What the state doesn't pay for, local taxpayers do.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia explained, "It turns into more overtime for cops. It turns into more medicine in the jailhouse. It turns into more detention officers in the county jail."

Funding will be debated in the legislature. Though Turner says a failure to increase the spending has a peril.

"Texas is a time bomb," he said. "We're facing a mental health crisis in this state."

The legislature convenes in Austin next week.

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