Prioritizing Mental Health in the 83rd Legislature

Nearly a month has passed, but time has done little to diminish the aching in our hearts over the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While our nation searches for answers, my thoughts and prayers are with the parents of the children who were killed.

This terrible event has rightly ignited discussions on how this could happen and how we can stop it from ever happening again. As a State Senator, it is my responsibility to work with other elected officials and review our laws and funding priorities to prevent another tragedy. Unfortunately, there is no singular solution. We need to move on several fronts to ensure the safety of our children, especially in the classroom, which is why I support the effort to place a trained, armed security guard at every school in Texas.

We must also reform our mental health system – an issue I have been preparing to address in the current legislative session. Last session, despite extremely difficult budget constraints, the Legislature increased overall funding for mental health by more than $50 million. We made this decision because we recognized that, left unaddressed, our mental health problems manifest themselves in public hospitals, jails or – as we saw in Connecticut – in tragedy.

As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, I will press for additional funding for mental health services this session. However, simply adding funds to our system will not address its core problems. We must not only provide adequate funding for mental health – we must ensure our services lead to long-term solutions for patients.

For the last several months, I presided over a comprehensive study of Texas’ mental health system as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services committee, and concluded it is in need of meaningful reform.

We identified several challenges, including a lack of care coordination within the mental health system, little integration of physical and behavioral health services and a limited choice of providers. Additionally, it is difficult for the state and consumers to know which providers are producing better outcomes and for the state to incentivize better performance through funding.

To begin to address these problems, I filed SB 58 to better coordinate mental health services for Medicaid patients, as well as SB 126 which requires the Department of State Health Services to create a reporting system so the public can view and compare performance and outcomes among providers. I am also considering changes that would tie funding for community mental health services to outcome and performance measures.

In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I am reviewing our state laws on how families can get treatment for loved ones at high risk for violent behavior, as well as for how teachers and other authority figures report behavior that may indicate a propensity for violence.

Beyond mental health, there are many other issues that need to be discussed in the months ahead such as school safety, gun laws, and overexposure of our youth to violent images. These dialogues must proceed, keeping in mind the need to preserve the precious freedoms and constitutional rights we cherish as Americans.

I used to teach the sixth grade, and never did I imagine a time would come when our schools need protection from mass murder. Now I have children who are teachers and grandchildren in school. Their safety – along with all students, teachers and faculty – is paramount.

As state officials, community leaders and parents, we must never forget the events of December 14, 2012. We must re-direct our pain and sorrow behind the effort to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable citizens – our children. It will take us all to succeed.

Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, represents District 12, including portions of Denton and Tarrant counties.


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