AUSTIN (KXAN) — Mental health workers are in short supply across Texas and the Speaker of the House created a task force to diagnose the problem and treat it.
An accused arsonist who recently escaped from the Austin State Hospital is an incident some look to to explain why the mental health issue in Texas is a crisis. Kirill Belchenko was sent to the Austin State Hospital after he was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. Belchenko received psychiatric treatment, but only after police say he committed a dangerous crime.
More than 500,000 Texans struggle with serious mental illness. 1.6 million Texans are dependent on alcohol or drugs and thousands of Texans commit suicide every year. Statistics that drives lawmakers to look for innovative ideas to change the system.
Wednesday, the Texas House Select Committee on Mental Health met at the Capitol to hear testimony from prominent mental health professionals.Their goal is to improve early identification, crisis intervention, access to care, continuity of care, coordination of services related to an integrated system of care and the delivery of care in rural, urban, and under-served areas.
In short, how can the state get help to people that need it before they end up hurting themselves or others. Two major theories came out during Wednesday’s hearing. The first, is we need more workers to go into underserved areas of the state, mostly in rural areas. The state’s vast system of medical schools creates a lot of medical students but they move to other states to do their on the job training known as residency.
Behind his computer, Dr. Thomas J. Kim can do everything a traditional psychiatrist can.
“It’s not about geography. It’s about access. What we struggle with today is access to care challenges,” said Dr. Kim.
For more than 10 years he’s practiced telemedicine across the country through cameras, keyboards and screens. He sees the ongoing mental health crisis as a shortage of preventative medicine and education and says people only get the help they need when it’s too late.
“Essentially the messaging they’re getting is wait until you want to kill yourself, then we will help you. Which is just crazy logic,” said Dr. Kim.
It’s that logic the Texas House is trying to break. Lawmakers want to put the state’s focus on preventing the next crisis.
“We don’t have enough professionals. We are critically short on mental health professionals,” said Dr. Kari Wolf, who works in a psychiatric emergency room. She says there are tens of thousands of people who live in an area where a psychiatrist isn’t available.
“Many of the people I see who are in crisis, didn’t need to be in crisis. If we were able to get them care earlier in the course of their illness they never would have made it to a crisis stage,” said Dr. Wolf.
Dr. Kim says telemedicine could let doctors find more people in need if only mental health licenses, regulations, and fees could be streamlined. Lawmakers could make those changes in January during the next legislative session .
Even in the high density city of Austin, there is only 11.7 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people. The national standard should be 25 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people according to Dr. Kari Wolf M.D. from Seton Healthcare. The Texas Medical Association says more than 3,600 people commit suicide in Texas every year.