Editor’s note: This is one in a series reviewing 2019 in East Texas. Today, staff writer Jimmy Isaac writes about the year’s story that affected him the most.
In 2006 — my second year as a News-Journal reporter — I completed a rather exhaustive story about mental health treatment in Texas, speaking with officials across the state along with local people, exhausted themselves with the lack of a clear way to help mentally ill people.
They hoped for divine help from Austin to fix these issues. I think we’ve all heard that futile prayer before.
I won an award and $500 from the Hogg Foundation for that report, but the mentally ill and those who’ve pledged to help them seem to be in a perpetually losing battle.
So my favorite story in 2019 happened this summer, when the Gregg County Collaborative Wellness Center opened.
The facility on Sixth Street in Longview is a place where law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical technicians can take patients in a mental health crisis for treatment.
The community after-hours clinic is designed to alleviate strains on hospital emergency rooms and jails, which for too long have served as the stopgap in such situations.
An $850,000 grant from the Episcopal Health Foundation combined with planning and support from Gregg County, the Christus Foundation, both local hospitals and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration got the Gregg County Collaborative Wellness Center off the ground.
In Texas, a person with a mental health situation must see a physician face to face to get a medical clearance to enter a mental health crisis center, which generally means that law enforcement officers or EMTs take the patient to a hospital.
Sometimes, the patient simply is depressed and needs to talk to someone, I’ve learned, but there is no other place — particularly after 5 p.m. or on weekends — in which he or she can be seen by medical personnel and have lab tests performed.
When dispatched to a call that involves a possible mental health crisis, the officer or EMT will determine if the situation poses immediate danger to physical health or if the situation is criminal in nature.
If no immediate danger is present, the first responder communicates with a medical professional to get a referral to the Gregg County Collaborative Wellness Center — a communication made easier by Pulsara.
Pulsara is a mobile app that provides real-time communication between health care entities. The collaborative’s use of the app will be unique in that it usually isn’t used by an officer or EMT looking to get a medical clearance for a mental health patient.
To be fair, the 86th Texas legislative session also put more attention on mental health and substance use-related issues, according to the Hogg Foundation. Budget riders for the current biennium include funding for medically dependent children, general revenue funds for Medicaid mental health and intellectual disability services and screening for offenders with mental impairment.
All in all, we’re only scratching the surface of effectively treating the mentally ill on a public scale. But seeing steps in a positive direction this year at least comforts me that we’re moving toward the better destination.