topics In The News As West Texas’ population grows, the need for more mental health care does too

As West Texas’ population grows, the need for more mental health care does too

This article was originally published in The Texas Tribune on October 10, 2023.

ODESSA — About five years ago, Midland County faced a hard truth: Its jail was full.

The swelling was caused in part by an increase in incarcerated people who needed mental health evaluations. The nearest behavioral center, where those evaluations could take place, was also at capacity.

“They’re essentially being warehoused,” said Laura Nodolf, the Midland County district attorney, referring to the incarcerated people needing help.

Jails and hospitals crowded with residents needing mental health help throughout the Permian Basin and the rest of the state have only become more common.

A $25 billion investment and state plan has not been enough to keep up with the state’s booming population and their mental health needs. An estimated one in five Texans lives with a mental health disorder.

The state ranked last when it comes to access to mental health services, according to Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group. And nearly every one of Texas’ 254 counties has a shortage of mental health care workers, according to the federal government.

Local officials in the Permian Basin, including Nodolf, expect a new 200-bed hospital in the area will help alleviate pressure off the jail and provide the booming region with additional mental health services that have been desperately needed.

The Permian Basin Behavioral Health Center will be co-managed by two local hospitals and is set to open in 2025. The center will accept teen and adult patients, it will offer short and long-term treatment, court-ordered competency evaluations for inmates waiting to stand trial and provide counseling services to families whose relatives are being treated at the facility.

Health care leaders in the region hope the behavioral center, which cost $240 million to open, will bring mental health to the forefront of available services for the region’s residents.

“People forget that there are people who live in the Permian Basin. They think all we do is pump oil and gas out of the ground,” said Russell Tippin, chief executive officer of the Medical Center Health System, a network of over 50 medical providers between West Texas and New Mexico. “People don’t realize how many people live in the Permian and what it takes to make us run.”

In this 22-county stretch, the population has grown steadily over the years.

Midland and Ector counties, the basin’s population center, together have a combined 333,000 people, according to census data. That’s about as many people who live in Arlington, the state’s seventh most populous city.

And as the region’s population increases, local facilities have become overstretched.

Pushed to the brink, existing mental health care facilities are forced to focus on emergencies rather than preventive care, said to Chris Barnhill, CEO of PermiaCare, a local behavioral clinic.

Barnhill, whose clinic is one of few in the region, said they have become increasingly focused on averting crises to keep patients from needing treatment in hospitals. When a case escalates into a medical emergency, Barnhill said, patients oftentimes have to travel upwards of five hours to the nearest hospital.

“I think [a new facility] will make all of our lives better,” Barnhill said.

In response to the growing issue, lawmakers this summer called for increased investment.

The legislature set aside $2.26 billion to aid state hospitals and behavioral health centers to support various infrastructure projects, including expansions, and, in other cases, to build out new facilities altogether. An Amarillo hospital received $159 million for new beds, while a long-term care facility in Lubbock received $121 million. The Permian Basin received $86.7 million for a new facility.

“These efforts are going to take years to refine and do well,” said Andy Keller, CEO of Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, adding that the best use of money from the state is in the hands of local health care leaders.

As the state money trickles into the Permian Basin, other groups have stepped in to fill gaps.

Leaders across education, health care and energy created a plan to support the behavioral health center.The University of Texas Permian Basin, for example, is offering scholarships to students pursuing a graduate degree in clinical psychology, social work, counseling and school counseling.

Permian Strategic Partnership, a coalition of energy companies, donated $10 million in grants to launch that program. And Diamondback Energy, a Midland-based oil and gas company, donated the 50 acres where construction for the Permian Basin Behavioral Health Center will be constructed.

“You’re starting to see some major, unprecedented investments,” said Sara Woodley, president of UTPB. “We’re on a roll here. This is how you get it done.”

View this article on the Texas Tribune’s website.