Mental health issues in South Texas: Health professionals, law enforcement face 'crisis'

Robin Bradshaw
Alice Echo News Journal

While the nation grapples with ongoing issues related to mental health, South Texas health professionals and law enforcement say they are bracing for a "crisis" as more people struggle to seek treatment. 

The Center for Control Disease (CDC) reported in April that from August 2020 to February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36 percent to 42 percent. The percentage of individuals reporting unmet mental health care needs increased from 9 percent to 12. The highest increase was among adults aged 18–29 years and those with less than a high school education. 

"Unfortunately, I foresee the current situation of mental health issues in our community as the beginning of an avalanche of what's to come," said Jim Wells County Sheriff Daniel Bueno. "With schools starting back in session this September, unemployment ending, along with other societal issues, I believe it's only going to get worse." 

Another top local law enforcement leader agreed.

"Counties in South Texas are not dealing with a mental health issue. We are dealing with a mental health crisis," said Duval County Sheriff Romeo Ramirez.

How did we get here? 

The problem is multifaceted," Bueno said.

 The veteran of 42 years in public service said he has seen his fair share of community issues.

"One of the major problems is less family interaction with children. Humans need love and attention. The stronger drugs on the street don't help, social media, the increase in female inmates and the list goes on.

"I have parents who want me to pick up their kids because they do not want to deal with them or know how to at home," he added.  

More:Spending more time in nature crucial to children's mental health and development, study says

How do jails play a role?

Jim Wells County jail averages 17 inmates a month with mental health issues. The jail's population started to change during the early 2000s. Before then, inmates had  primarily alcohol-related issues and the jail had mostly male inmates. Twenty years later the increase of methamphetamine and heroin use  has contributed to the rise of mental health issues at the 88 cell jail. Jail officials said the available occupancy and jail design is outdated. For example, to meet state jail standards many cells are left vacant for the required distance between female and male inmates. Depending on a multitude of circumstances including gang oppositions, mental health issues, behavioral issues, gender or child-related offenses the 88 cell jail meets full capacity frequently due to inmates being separated from the general population using more space with occupied single cells. 

That jail is far from the only one  housing more inmates dealing with mental health issues that have pushed jail capacity to the limit..

The jail receives funding from the state for transportation to take inmates to and from doctor appointments for psychiatric visits but the sheriff's department still is responsible for the inmates' medical bills. It has an annual budget of $150,000 to cover inmate medical expenses. 

Jim Wells County also works with the Coastal Plains Community Center for Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR), which offers a variety of programs as its voluntary jail diversion program to help in cognitive therapy, counseling and medication oversight. 

Jim Wells County Sheriff's Office

Another issue the department faces is criminal cases that fall under the incompetence to stand trial law. An inmate can wait for months to years for a hospital bed to open up for treatment. Law enforcement officials say that lack of space at state hospitals means those inmates will be housed at the jail for an extended amount of time depending on  severity of the mental diagnosis and accused crime. 

Chief Deputy Luis Valadez explained a common scenario at the Jim Wells County jail  when someone arrested related to a crime  has a mental illness. The inmate receives medication and does well while locked up due to a consistent regimen of prescribed medication, consistent doctor visits and the weekly visit from a counselor from Coastal Plains Community Center. The inmate is released, and then not on the same strict schedule as in jail. The prescribed medication then is lapsed, psychosis issues result in response to the change in regimen, outpatient visits are missed and more times than not an incident will happen that involves an arrest and the pattern repeats as a repeat offender, Valadez added. 

Jim Wells County jail averages 17 inmates a month with mental health issues.

What are potential solutions?

Professional counselor Moe Hill, and 30-year educator and Alice councilman Ron Burke  both believe in early intervention when issues arise at a young age.

"School districts and police departments need to start looking at mental health differently," Hill said. "(There should be) early cognitive coping skills for life with more mental health professionals instead of social workers. Across the board from police officers to teachers to social workers, mental health professionals are needed on staff." 

"The resources are not meeting the needs and it's obvious. It is time to start having a real conversation and a more intense response to mental health in our area," Burke added.   

Coastal Plains CEO Leo Trejo has been working in the mental health field for 24 years. "We have a variety of programs for the youth and adults but it is on a volunteer basis," Trejo said. "The problem is evolving and the state does need more hospital beds to meet the demand, and as a nation, the need for more psychiatrists and psychologists is prevalent as well as treating mental health as a whole. A mental diagnosis needs support from family, many times medication, cognitive therapy, diet and more. It's about treating the whole aspects of the issue, not just one." 

Coastal Plains currently staffs three licensed psychiatric doctors for the region and uses nurse practitioners, registered nurses and counselors to support their efforts.  

The JWC Sheriff's Department is seeking funding to build a new jail that meets the needs of today. Bueno said he recently joined the Coastal Plain Community Center board, which has members from nine surrounding counties.

"We are working together with a regional approach and looking for more funding to improve the jail and more funding for programs to improve the family dynamic with the growing need for better family interaction," he said.

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