AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As lawmakers prepare to return to the Texas Capitol this month, many rural communities hope the legislature will make significant investments into their mental health resources.

Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner handles mental health cases not only in her county seat of Amarillo, but in more than two dozen rural counties around the Texas Panhandle. Even though Tanner said she has processed more than 5,000 cases in her tenure, the closest mental health hospital to her constituents is more than 200 miles away.

“I can tell you some sad, sad stories,” she said. “I don’t want people to tell me, ‘well, he killed himself.’ That is what we have to stop.”

She said only about one in five people with mental healthcare needs in the cases she has handled have made it to a state hospital. Often when they do, Tanner added they are released without proper care and end up back in the system.

“There’s never an available bed,” she said. “We’re just backlogged with the same people.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick estimated at a press conference last month that out of about 2,500 beds for mental health patients in Texas, at least 1,000 are empty because of nursing staff shortages. He named rural mental health access as one of his top priorities for the 88th legislative session.

“As I’ve traveled around the state I have seen the need,” Patrick said. “We don’t have a mental health facility in the Panhandle, so I’m proposing we build one there. This is something we have to do for our communities.”

He estimated his plan to add a new state hospital in Amarillo and hundreds of beds to existing locations will cost $2.2 billion. He was specific in advocating for more beds in El Paso, 300 more in Wichita Falls and Terrell, as well as 140 more in the Rio Grande Valley.

Patrick also proposed new investments in tuition coverage and pay raises for nurses to cut down on staffing shortages.

In Kingsville, Dr. Steve Bain with the new Institute for Rural Mental Health Initiatives said the priority should be on graduate school programs that train new mental health professionals and incentivize placement in rural communities. The Texas A&M Board of Regents approved the institute this November as a first-of-its-kind center for rural mental health research and education.

“Our state ranks very low on its delivery of mental health resources, particularly to remote population,” Bain said. “We’ve got to be constantly connected with these communities, and that’s going to take time and organization through our institute. It’s going to take research and research funding. And it’s going to take putting our graduate students who need their practicum and internships into these rural communities.”

In testimony to the Texas House, Bain told lawmakers that one in five Texas children have a mental health disorder. Just between 2019 and 2021, the Texas Poison Control Network saw a 50% increase in calls for suspected suicide among teenage girls.

“We are in an unprecedented time in our state’s history where great leaders like you can make a difference for children, their families, and those who are committed to the holistic success of our young Texans,” he testified. “With your support, we can and must expand rural mental health programs.”

Tanner said she is optimistic this session will bring tangible improvements.

“Lt. Gov. Patrick said there’s money in the budget,” she said, adding that the Senate Finance Committee was “very open” to her proposal for an Amarillo mental health hospital. The Amarillo Area Foundation has already donated seven acres for the facility — couple that with the local medical school students at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and she said it only makes sense.

“I’m praying that it happens. It will be my biggest venture and my biggest success as judge to get this done before I leave here,” she said.