Each year I promise myself at the New Year that I will try harder to focus on my own personal health whether it’s eating a more nutritious diet, working out just a little bit harder, or sleeping through the night. Yet there is one health issue in the general public that has continuously come up during my conversations with local and state leaders and has become increasingly more prevalent in policy discussions. That is the topic of children and their mental health.
As a state legislator who will always keep protecting children at the forefront of my priorities, I often times see heartbreaking and very concerning scenarios involving children that are attributed to mental health challenges. Being the father of two beautiful young daughters, these situations strike me to my core.
In 2015, 8 percent of children between the ages of 0-14 in Denton County had a mental health diagnosis. Experts say this diagnostic number may be low as you compare it to the 73 percent of all youth referred to Denton County Juvenile Justice that have mental health needs and how over 5,000 adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24 died by suicide in 2014. Accordingly, only half of the children with mental health diagnoses actually received treatment for their diagnosis in 2014.
The greatest factor attributed to these low statistics on recognition and treatment of mental illness is the lack of opportunity for these children to speak up and identify themselves. While instructors in the classroom and care providers are now trained to see the signs, children often do not want to associate themselves with mental health issues as they perceive them negatively. It is tragic to see these individuals at such a young age struggle with shame and guilt when they instead deserve to be supported.
Last spring, a remarkable new campaign aimed at ending the stigma around mental health issues was launched by the Meadows Mental Health Institute. Named the “Okay to Say” campaign, the statewide initiative began during the National Mental Health Awareness Month in July 2016 and has garnered many supporting partners, including several local Denton County entities such as United Way of Denton County, the Center for Children’s Health led by Cook Children’s, Wellness Alliance for Total Children’s Health of Denton County led by Cook Children’s, Denton County Behavioral Health Leadership, the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University, Carrolton Springs Hospital, NAMI Denton County, and the Denton County MHMR Center. As the campaign is becoming more popular, many highly recognized people are speaking out in hopes others will speak up. The initiative is also geared towards providing greater resources to those who suffer from mental illness.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Okay to Say is its theme and goal to make it OK for any person to raise their hand and ask for help or report how someone they know needs treatment. Although mental illness awareness is becoming more widespread, people still hesitate to talk about it.
Visit www.okaytosay.org for more information about the initiative and join the movement to show your support for those who have mental health needs. Okay to Say has opportunities for involvement on social media and in your community as well.
At the state level, the Texas House of Representatives is taking the issue of mental health and the effects it has on both adults and children very seriously. Last January, I shared with you how the Speaker of the House created the House Select Committee on Mental Health to assess the state of Texas’ behavioral health system. While the committee has not yet submitted its legislative recommendations, I look forward to advancing their findings during the upcoming 85th Legislative Session beginning January 10, 2017.
Additionally, Denton County was awarded approval by Governor Abbott to operate a juvenile mental health court, known as SOAR, that allows qualifying juveniles between the ages of 10 and 17 whose mental health issues have placed them at risk of being removed from their home to receive in-home intensive treatments and services. This incredible program also addresses any family issues that are contributing to or resulting from the child’s mental health disorder. SOAR is funded with a discretionary state aid grant from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Although the state has taken significant steps to further address mental health needs, there is always more we can do to improve the system. And as concerned fellow Texans, I hope this information compels you to learn more about how together we can help children in crisis.
As always, it is an honor to serve you in the Texas House of Representatives, and I welcome your feedback on this and any other critical state issues. If you would like to share your thoughts with me, please feel free to contact me at my Capitol office at 512-463-0688 or by e-mail at [email protected].