Mental health care advocates call on lawmakers for funds

Jake Hong

Funding for mental health care keeps people out of the prison system and encourages proper diagnosis and treatment, members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said at a rally Thursday.

A group of about 60 people addressed the role of legislators in ensuring that mental health services and programs can continue to operate and expand, even as state mental health services face a slew of proposed budget cuts to balance a $27-billion budget shortfall.

Elizabeth Smalling, the group’s Metropolitan Houston program assistant, said mental health care impacts entire communities, not just individuals.

“We’re trying to keep people out of jails, institutions and treatment centers,” she said.

Rally participants called on legislators to make health care more accessible and expand the scope of coverage.

Smalling said that because many mental illnesses lead people to commit criminal acts, individuals who do not have access to appropriate health insurance and treatment could end up in jail.

“Police officers have become the de facto social workers of the twenty-first century because of the lack of funding and the vast majority unwilling to seek treatment,” said Frank Webb, a senior police officer in the Houston Police Department’s mental health unit. Out of the 10,000 individuals in custody at the Harris County Jail, 2,500 use psychotropic drugs, Webb said.

According to statistics from the alliance, the average cost of mental health treatment is $12 per day, and the average cost for treating someone in jail is $137 per day.

“If you’re looking from a dollars and cents perspective, it makes sense,” Webb said. “You’ll save money by spending it on these programs.”

Speakers at the rally said an investment in mental health care would pay for itself.

“So many of us will lose our medications and treatment, and without them we will end up back in the system,” said Michael Barton, a member of St. Joseph House, a Houston-based club for people with mental illnesses.

Diagnosing a mental health issue early and effectively is yield better results than jailing them, said Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

“It is unconscionable how many people end up behind bars for something that they have no control over,” she said. “It has to stop. It has to stop now, and it should have never occurred to begin with.”