Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Community must take action to fill gaps in mental health care
The discussion on the need for better mental health care has resurfaced repeatedly in our nation throughout the past few years. Now, Victoria rejoins the conversation with an incident of our own.
On April 17, a Victoria man was beaten until he was unconscious outside of a convenience store. The man suspected of attacking him is Marlin Adams, who is widely known around town as Pepper.
Pepper has become something of a celebrity around town. Many people recognize him on sight, and he is known to walk around town, sometimes stopping to ask for money. In 2009, the Advocate did a series on the Top 10 most fascinating people in the Crossroads. Pepper was chosen as the most fascinating by our readers, partly because of all of the mystery and unconfirmed stories surrounding him.
Unfortunately, one part of Pepper's story is true. He has been arrested and charged with crimes, some violent, in the past and in 2000 was sent to a San Antonio mental hospital after he was charged with aggravated assault causing bodily injury. He remained there until 2001, when his mental state was judged to be improved enough to stand trial. He pleaded no contest to that charge and was given 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.
We've commented on the need for better, more proactive mental health care in our nation before, especially in the wake of recent mass shootings and violent acts performed by people with mental health issues that went untreated. This recent assault charge coupled with Pepper's history brings the issue into a more stark reality in our community. Victoria has made some important steps in recent years to help those with mental health needs. The Gulf Bend Center in particular has created and helped establish programs by working with law enforcement and local hospitals to specifically address various mental health needs, and both Executive Director Don Polzin and Associate Executive Director David Way agree Victoria is moving in the right direction, but there are still gaps that can be filled.
When law enforcement in Victoria County is faced with someone having an emotional or uncontrollable outburst, officers or deputies can call the Gulf Bend Center's mobile crisis unit for assistance instead of the previous method of taking the patient to an emergency room. The unit services Victoria County and the six contiguous counties and works directly with law enforcement and area hospitals to offer first response and triage to determine the best course of action for a patient, Way said. This is an important tool, especially considering about a quarter of the 392 inmates held in the county jail were on psychological medication as of January.
Gulf Bend also leases six beds of space from Citizens Medical Center as an extended observation unit for physicians to monitor mental health patients for 24 to 48 hours. This outpatient program helps relieve emergency departments and provides a less restrictive setting for patients who don't need to spend an extended amount of time in an inpatient clinic, Way said.
Gulf Bend is in the process of building the Wellness Community, which is aimed at working with individuals experiencing both mental and physical needs. It aims to reduce three aspects of mental health care - emergency department usage, preventable hospitalizations and readmissions - by teaching individuals how to manage their illnesses, Way said. The Wellness Community is about a $4 million project that is being supported by investments from multiple foundations, businesses and members of the community.
These are all good steps, but there are still gaps in available services that the Gulf Bend Center and others in the community would like to see filled. Way and Polzin pointed to the need for a better focus on early intervention and assessment in the community. Gulf Bend is now partnering with VISD to work with teachers, families and students to provide mental health care. The center has also received a grant to provide training in mental health first aid certification at both schools and Victoria College.
The center would also like to see the creation of a crisis intervention response team to help fill the gaps in mental health care. This would make mental health professionals available inside law enforcement agencies to help improve availability and emergency response. Similar programs have been developed in Bexar and Harris counties, which have become international models, Way said. Smaller counties are also looking into this program, and Victoria County could benefit from it as well.
By offering early intervention through law enforcement and judicial channels, treatment can be addressed, and that will help ensure people who need help are not just cycling in and out of jail, Polzin said.
"We can develop something on a scale here that can be effective and minimize the cost to taxpayers and the cost in life," he said.
Gulf Bend also relies on the community to continue supporting the needs of people with mental health issues. The center receives state funding for up to 900 patients, Way said, but the need in the region far exceeds that funding capacity. "Where does the funding come from for the 901st?" Way asked.
The answer is simple. Victoria and other communities in the Crossroads must put aside any fears, stigmas or false perceptions that we have when it comes to mental health. The need for constant improvement in our mental health care is clear, and the Gulf Bend Center and other community organizations have a plan of action that should be supported. Communities that come together to address this issue are doing a good job, Polzin said. "This is a community issue. Unless we approach it as a community, it's difficult to address."
This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.