Rural Texas awaits mental health windfall after expanded state investment
This article was published by KXAN on August 20, 2023.
AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Across 25,000 square miles of the Texas Panhandle, Nancy Tanner can offer scant help to rural Texans in a worsening crisis.
“People are unhappy. People are unstable right now,” Tanner said. “There has been an upswing of mental health cases, and it’s not going to get any better.”
As the Potter County Judge in the Panhandle hub of Amarillo, she processes mental health cases from 26 counties. The closest care, however, is 225 miles away in Wichita Falls. Texans in the small towns dotting the panhandle may not even have access to a doctor, let alone a psychiatrist.
Their access to mental health care will improve in the coming years after a major investment from the state. Amarillo will soon build a $159 million mental health hospital, adding 75 beds for the Panhandle.
“I’m extremely, extremely happy that the hospital is going to be built here. That has been something I’ve been trying to get done for quite some time now and it’s finally going to happen,” Tanner said.
It’s part of the state’s investment into mental health which has now risen to about $11 billion, targeting 17 new hospital builds across the state. It’s about a 30% increase in mental health funding.
“It’s the largest single increase in behavioral funding by any state legislature in U.S. history,” CEO of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute Andy Keller said. “It’s actually easier today to get mental health care in rural Texas than ever.”
Keller said the state’s investment into new hospitals is coupled with its continued commitment to telehealth to improve what has previously been dismal access to mental health care statewide. He said the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program, or TCHATT, is a major improvement in youth mental health care.
“We have a lot of hurting children, some of whom are going to hurt other children, some are going to hurt themselves, and we need to do more,” he said. “We have the most comprehensive… preventative mental health plan for children with severe needs of any state in the country.”
TCHATT is available for all school districts and can offer free, same-day telehealth appointments for Texas students.
The challenges, however, persist in filling the coming hospitals with sufficient staff.
If [the legislature] had put in twice as much money for these children’s mental health programs, we couldn’t have ramped up any faster, because we literally lacked the humans to do it. We’re all struggling with a workforce that is inadequate.
~Andy Keller, PhD
Tanner has those same concerns for the new hospital coming to Amarillo. She will dedicate efforts over the next four years to ensuring the Panhandle has not just the facilities, but the expertise, to combat their growing mental health challenges.
“That’s part of the problem with the rural area is that there are no doctors, so they come here to get all the treatments,” she said. “Nobody wants to work, I think, and that may be a problem looking down the road to this hospital… that was shocking to me, because I just thought, ‘oh, people are gonna come from everywhere.’ I hope I’m right. But I’m afraid I’m not. So we’ll see what happens.”
Texans in a mental health crisis should call 988 for emergency help.