A new report from the United Way of Denton County confirms what the mental health community has long recognized: The gap between community needs and resources is deep and wide.
Meeting those needs may prove a far bigger challenge than assessing the gap, according to Gary Henderson, president and CEO.
When United Way volunteers began their most recent assessment of community health needs, it became clear they would need to tackle mental health separately, Henderson said, hence the special assessment and report.
In the U.S., Texas spends the least per capita on mental health. In 2010, Texas spent less than $39 per capita on mental health services. That figure dropped to $16.25 in 2012. The national average is about $126 per capita.
Denton County, in turn, receives the lowest per capita funding of all Texas counties, with just $11.11 allocated per person in 2012, the United Way found.
State health officials estimate that 13,408 adults in Denton County have severe and persistent mental illness. Denton County MHMR was able to serve 13 percent of them last year. Even fewer children with severe emotional disturbances were served last year. Just 8 percent, or 410 of the estimated 4,976 children who needed help, got it.
Esther Fidler, Lewisville resident and head of the Denton County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides support to people with mental illness and their families, said the dearth of resources is costly not only for individuals and their families but also the community.
State health officials require Denton County MHMR and similar service providers to allocate their meager resources first to those with major depression, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders.
“Unless you are suicidal or homicidal, you are put on a list,” Fidler said.
People need quality care, reliable access to medication and cognitive behavioral treatment to keep their mental illness in check, but the rationing of mental health care makes that impossible, she said.
As a result, many people who need mental health services end up in the criminal justice system, such as one Denton County man who recently became suicidal, lay down in traffic in hopes of being hit, and ended up being arrested by a police officer for obstructing traffic, Fidler said.
The man was incarcerated for eight months, even though providing the mental health services he needed would have cost much less, she said.
Poor quality of care also means that many people with mental illness are robbed of their most productive years, keeping them from meaningful work and paying taxes themselves, she said.
In the case of Fidler’s son, who has a degree in robotics, one breakdown was so profound that when he was finally stabilized he could no longer function as he did before, she said. She had to teach him to read a newspaper and balance his checkbook.
The stigma that comes with mental illness keeps the community from treating the person with the same care and dignity afforded to another person who might be suffering from heart disease or diabetes, she said.
She thinks legislators and policymakers don’t quite believe the testimony of the mentally ill and their families when they outline the community’s needs.
“Their whole attitude is that people with mental illness have chosen the behavior themselves,” Fidler said. “It is not wickedness.”
Initial reaction to the United Way’s report has community leaders asking what’s next, “and that’s being discussed,” Henderson said.
Advocacy with elected officials and policymakers will be in the mix, Henderson said. Some campaign funds could be directed toward a community impact grant or money for a current provider that has infrastructure and a well-regarded staff.
However, the gap between mental health needs and resources available is so large that the United Way may need to help the community create and develop additional programs, he said.
“The needs are great,” Henderson said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.