Texas Senate committee shifts to gun safety, mental health

A hearing of the Texas Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans, which was formed in the aftermath of the Uvalde mass shooting, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Austin, Texas.
A hearing of the Texas Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans, which was formed in the aftermath of the Uvalde mass shooting, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Austin, Texas. Photo credit Texas Senate

The Texas Senate committee investigating the response to Uvalde is hearing a second day of testimony Wednesday. Tuesday, the Special Committee to Protect All Texans heard from law enforcement about the response, police training, and social media. Wednesday's hearing included a discussion about mental health and gun safety.

The first to testify Wednesday morning were leaders of the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, a group created by the state legislature in 2019. The group looks at how colleges and universities in Texas can work to address mental health challenges among youth.

"Most people will say their mental health disorder started in childhood," said Dr. Laurel Williams, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Baylor College of Medicine. "If we really can help a family at the beginning of an issue, perhaps improve that issue, help it get managed better, you really are changing a life trajectory. That's what gets me really excited."

The organization has launched several initiatives to help connect kids with mental health services, but only 40% of districts have signed up for a service that can provide in-school behavioral health services through telemedicine.

"The more we can make this be a safe thing to talk about, and it's not stigmatized, that's where we're really going to make the most change," Williams said. "Walking down the hall and going to the mental health provider should not be seen as something that means you're a bad person. It really just means there's strength in telling somebody you need help."

Williams said the consortium has served more than 18,000 students in the past two years. She said ages have been spread evenly through elementary school, middle school, and high school.

"As a child psychiatrist, that actually makes me feel happy because one of the reasons I went into child mental health is to prevent problems," Williams said.

Williams said the most common reasons children have been referred to the program have been depression and anxiety.

"The pandemic has, of course, only exacerbated this, but those are the top two reasons for referrals, followed by anger," Williams said.

Uvalde has not signed on to participate in the consortium. Leaders of the group say families in smaller communities may struggle to find mental health treatment because they are more likely to have to drive several hours for a psychiatrist or therapist. David Lakey, Chief Medical Officer at the University of Texas, said 30% of available mental health jobs in Texas are unfilled, and the percentage is higher in Uvalde.

"It's not because they weren't trying. They were trying to recruit as best they could, it's just hard to recruit in some of these communities," Lakey said. "What we're trying to do is, through the guidance of the legislature, is have this safety net to help support schools, the primary care providers, the people on the front lines, develop the workforce so we can help."

Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked about similarities between the Uvalde and Santa Fe shooters. At Tuesday's hearing, DPS Director Steve McCraw said people had noticed the Uvalde gunman had taken on the "persona of a school shooter in dress and demeanor over the past year." Bettencourt said people noticed the same issues with the Santa Fe shooter.

"No one called them out, and nothing was done. That may have been the last stop sign before disaster," McCraw said.

"Where we want to go is, in the future, when an individual like this is in fourth grade and the teacher says, 'This isn't right. I'm seeing some worrisome signals,' they make that referral," Lakey responded.

Lakey said the referral is voluntary. Parents must agree to take their kids to a doctor or therapist. He said it's "pretty rare" that a family rejects treatment, but the greater issue is not being able to reach parents.

"The work we do is not to replace the family. It doesn't replace the role of the parents," Lakey said. "There are kids who struggle in the State of Texas because parents can be abusive, or the parent isn't there or a variety of issues."

Other initiatives by the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium include telehealth-based consultation and training for primary care doctors, the creation of two state-wide networks to improve the delivery of child mental health services, the creation of psychiatric resident positions at community health centers, and the expansion of fellowship programs and positions.

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