February 26, 2024

An oasis for mental health care is emerging in the Texas Panhandle

AMARILLO – Three times a week, Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner holds hearings for people to determine whether they should be placed in a psychiatric hospital.

Since she was elected in 2014, she has seen many of the same people cycle in and out of her courtroom — a long-running marathon of familiar faces who either don’t want help, or get it, and still end up in Tanner’s presence. .

When she no longer sees them, she quietly hopes that they will find help on their own. Unfortunately, Tanner is well aware of what can happen if they don’t.

“Some nights I go home thinking about these people,” said Tanner, the county’s top elected official with broad constitutional powers in all three branches of government. Like other district judges in rural parts of the state, she serves a limited judicial role. ‘I’m assuming they’re OK, but I don’t know if they are. I can’t control them.”

Organizations and nonprofits have been fighting for decades to increase access to mental health care in the Texas Panhandle, including Potter County and the county seat of Amarillo.

An oasis is finally in sight.

This year, state lawmakers set aside $2.26 billion to help state hospitals and increase access to mental health care. The approved funds include $159 million in hospital construction in Lubbock, the Permian Basin and in Amarillo. It’s an investment that officials hope will boost the state’s supply after consistently being rated among the worst in mental health care by advocacy groups such as Mental Health America.

“I think there are so many people affected by (mental health issues) who have reached out to their representatives,” said Mellisa Talley, executive director of Texas Panhandle Centers Behavioral & Developmental Health. “Maybe not many people have spoken out in the past, but I think we’re all talking about it more now.”

Advocates say the Amarillo Hospital will likely fill the gaps when it comes to serving the nearly 436,000 people living in the state’s northernmost areas, a largely rural area that has long been deprived of mental health care.

While there are local outpatient resources that people can voluntarily use, inpatient care is essentially non-existent. In the Panhandle, anyone in a mental health crisis needing hospitalization wouldn’t find that in Amarillo, a city of more than 200,000 residents — the same size as the Dallas suburbs of McKinney and Grand Prairie. Instead, they would be sent more than four hours from home to Wichita Falls or Big Spring.

When those hospitals are full, which is often the case, patients have to wait for an opening. During this time, Tanner said, they end up back in her courtroom.

“I can’t imagine how terrifying it is to be in a psychotic phase and be somewhere far away from your family,” said Dr. Amanda Mathias, Panhandle regional director for the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. “Any health issue you’re going through, whether it’s physical or mental, you want to be as close to your support system as possible.”

The Amarillo hospital, one of which is being built in Lubbock, comes at a time when they are needed most for the rural communities surrounding the two cities. Suicides in rural areas are rising faster than in metropolitan areas, increasing 55% between 2000 and 2020, according to a 2022 report from the state Behavioral Health Coordinating Council.

Data for the Panhandle paints a more troubling picture. Over the past two decades, the 21 counties represented in the report have seen an 81% increase in suicides. In 2000, an estimated 11 people per 100,000 people died by suicide. In 2020, the suicide rate rose to 20 per 100,000 people. In 2020, the Panhandle had the highest hospitalization rate for suicide attempts in the state, at 120 per 100,000 people. It doesn’t seem like the stock is slowing down. At least five people in Potter County have committed suicide this month, according to Tanner.

Mathias said that, like the body, the brain benefits from early detection. In the Panhandle, this will most likely be picked up in religious circles, primary care visits or pediatrician’s offices. Mathias said this has caused some local clinics to ask more questions about a patient’s mental state.

The Amarillo Area Foundation has invested $725,000 to integrate this approach into area clinics. It has already been used to screen more than 100 people in one clinic for a month.

“That’s 100 people who haven’t been asked these questions before,” Mathias said. “Physicians should be asking the questions that allow for early intervention so that we don’t get to the point of a crisis where someone is thinking about suicide.”

Libby Moore is the Chief Clinical Officer of Texas Panhandle Centers, a community behavioral health clinic with six locations throughout the region. She has noticed a change in the way people talk about mental health in general, and her organization has responded to what the community was crying out for.

The clinic offers mental health first aid training to adults and youth, a team dedicated to supporting family and loved ones after the loss of someone to suicide, and a mobile crisis team for telehealth needs.

What they can’t provide, Moore hopes the hospital can. This way, she says, patients can get whatever care they need closer to home. She compares it to people having a heart attack and how some may be able to return to their routine, while others may need to stay in a hospital for more treatment.

“Being able to meet the person where they are, when they need it most, is just a better prognosis,” Moore said.

Tanner, the Potter County judge, sees the hospital as proof that people are willing to talk about mental health. She grew up in a generation where those conversations were hushed up before the neighbors could find out. She wonders how many “accidental gunshots” she heard about were actually people quietly struggling before killing themselves.

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