Uvalde massacre prompts calls to expand mental health resources

Uvalde massacre prompts calls to expand mental health resources

One of Texas’ top public health officials on Wednesday urged state lawmakers to expand statewide mental health resources by addressing the field’s workforce shortage and bolstering student access to online counseling services.

The recommendations from Dr. David Lakey, the presiding officer of a state-run child mental health consortium created in response to the 2019 Santa Fe High School massacre, came during the second day of hearings before a new Senate committee debating legislative responses to last month’s school shooting in Uvalde.

Senators discussed law enforcement response to the shooting on Tuesday, making national headlines when Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw testified that police officers on site could have confronted the gunman just three minutes after he entered Robb Elementary School, but failed to do so.

Wednesday’s hearing focuses on mental health and firearm safety, but the former dominated early testimony. Texas’ Republican leaders have emphasized mental health services in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, where 19 children and two teachers were killed, while rejecting calls from the left to restrict gun access.

The Uvalde shooter was an 18-year-old high school dropout who exhibited signs of violence that were never reported to authorities, state officials said. People interviewed after the massacre described him as suicidal and cruel to animals, McCraw testified.

Lakey, who also serves as chief medical officer for The University of Texas System, offered a slate of potential solutions the Legislature could adopt to expand mental health resources statewide. The suggestions focused mostly on the workforce shortage, including proposed incentives for graduates to work in mental health and more paid internships.

He also suggested expanding rural broadband to increase the availability of telehealth resources and working more closely with schools to provide on-site services.

“If we don’t have the workforce there to provide the counseling services to our kids in the schools, we’re not going to be able to identify issues early, provide them the counseling they need, the services that they need, to get them on the path that they need,” he said. “And so this may be a little bit of a longer-term strategy related to the mental health system, but I think it’s essential if we want to be able to meet the needs that kids have in the state of Texas.”

Still, there is little evidence that mental illnesses cause mass shootings or that people diagnosed with them are more likely to commit violent crimes. Activists also fear that blaming mental illness could stigmatize the wide range of individuals who live with psychological disorders.

“The more that we can make this be a safe thing to talk about and it’s not stigmatized, then that’s where we’re really going to make the most change there,” said Laurel Williams, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine who testified with Lakey. “Walking down the hall and going to the mental health provider should not be seen as something that means you are a bad person or doing something bad. It really just means that you’re recognizing that there’s strength in telling somebody you need help.”

The consortium runs TCHATT — Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine — that provides virtual services to public school students who need mental health treatment. Texas currently spends $25 million annually to provide those resources to about 40 percent of the student body, and House Speaker Dade Phelan has suggested investing another $37.5 million each year to expand the services statewide.

Uvalde schools were not involved in the program when the shooting occurred. It’s also unlikely that the gunman would have qualified for the services because of his truancy, officials said.

In any case, consortium data indicates that few students are referred to TCHATT for harming others. About 41 percent are referred for anxiety, and another 34 percent for depression, while 17 percent were at risk of suicide and 14 percent self-harmed.

None were referred for harming others between October 2021 and May 2022, according to the center’s data.

cayla.harris@express-news.net

jasper.scherer@chron.com

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