Conroe, Montgomery organizations step up to improve access to mental health services as data shows growing demand

Local organizations in the Conroe and Montgomery areas are stepping up to improve access to mental health services in Montgomery County as the region sees an increase in calls for mental health services, but experts said more help is needed to address with the crisis.

“I see the need for mental health services now more than ever,” said Larissa Loera, president of the Watershed Counseling Center, which is planning a Sept. 24 grand opening in Montgomery.

Loera said she hopes to bring counseling services closer to home for families, youth and adults because existing mental health resources are concentrated near The Woodlands.

“There’s been a lot of growth in Montgomery County, and with the pandemic, it’s just amplified the need for mental health services,” she said.

Montgomery County Precinct 1 Officer Philip Cash, who helps lead the county’s mental health unit and crisis intervention team, told Montgomery County Commissioners Court on July 26 that the mental health unit received 4,783 calls from January to June this year, which already exceeds the 4,765 calls received in all of 2021.

The county expanded the unit in August 2021 with funding from the federal America’s Rescue Plan Act.

Montgomery County has budgeted $8.16 million, or more than a third of ARPA project funding as of March 31, for mental health, according to project and expenditure reports from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Statewide, a 2022 report by Mental Health America ranked Texas last out of 51 states and territories for access to mental health care. As such, local groups like the volunteer-based Montgomery County Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention Task Force said they are trying to improve access. The task force was created by District 1 Judge Wayne Mack in 2020, according to previous reports.

The task force begins a gap analysis in September to determine what services are needed in the county, said Brenda LaVar, a task force member and president of the board of directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Houston.

“When [families] I can’t get help, it’s a real problem,” she said.

Growth in demand for mental health

According to Cash’s report, calls for mental health services to the department are expected to increase to 9,566 calls by the end of 2022, a 101% increase over 2021.

He said the most common category of calls from January to June were various responses by crisis intervention teams, which consisted of checks with citizens who had recent mental health issues, as well as those who had recently completed outpatient visits with Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare, a federally qualified health center. Cash noted that ARPA funds have allowed officials to increase the frequency of tracking.
Meanwhile, Evan Roberson — Tri-County’s executive director — said Tri-County statistics show as of June that the center served 4,251 people in crisis; the center saw more children in the first six months of 2022 than in the four full years before that.
However, Roberson said staff shortages caused the center’s crisis stabilization unit to close in November.

He said people admitted to the 16-bed unit are usually uninsured and need hospitalization.

Roberson told commissioners Aug. 3 that nearly $2 million a year would be needed to re-recruit the program and pay competitive salaries, but said he did not want to hire full-time positions using temporary ARPA funds .

“[Having those beds] is one of this county’s greatest needs for law enforcement,” District 3 Commissioner James Noack said Aug. 3. “Their absence is a disservice.”

Barriers to access

In addition to staffing challenges, local organizations said long wait lists, a lack of providers and the cost of services are barriers to receiving mental health services in Montgomery County.

The area served by Tri-County in Montgomery, Walker and Liberty counties has been designated a high-needs area for mental health professional shortages, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

In addition, a 2022 report from Mental Health America showed that there were 830 residents per mental health provider in the state, ranking Texas second in terms of provider availability in the US

Sherry Burkhardt, director of education for Mosaics of Mercy — a Montgomery County-based nonprofit that helps residents find mental health services — said providers often have a waiting list for new clients.

“From [the peak of the pandemic]our call volume has leveled off, … but what we’ve seen is an increase in the complexity of calls and the difficulty of connecting with providers,” she said.

According to NAMI, 43.4% of Texas adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in February 2021, of which 26.4%—or 839,000 adults—failed to receive needed counseling or therapy, with the cost listed as obstacle for 45.3% of them.

However, in addition to the cost of receiving services, the lack of funding to provide mental health services is a challenge to address the need, said Steve Morris, lead pastor of Texas Grand Chapel. The church is in the early stages of merging with Refuge Counseling Center in Conroe to provide broader mental health services.

“Funding has to come from somewhere,” he said. “Local legislation will probably be able to help state or state-funded organizations. We need the community to stand aside and support non-profit, faith-based organizations.”

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said in an August email that he expects the state to upgrade its mental health funding in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January. He said the state invested $100 million in 2019 to create the Texas Children’s Mental Health Consortium and $745 million to build mental health facilities.

“Year after year, the Texas Legislature has prioritized mental health funding, and the 2023 session will be no different,” he said in an email. “Legislators will work hard to ensure that communities large and small have the mental health resources they need.”

Local response

As the legislative session approaches, LaVar said the task force is working to complete the gap analysis in December with a recommendation for priority initiatives and longer-term needs. The analysis begins Sept. 20 with a meeting of about 100 stakeholders, LaVar said, and will also include focus groups in the fall.

“What’s going to have the biggest impact right now?” LaVar said. “We’re going to produce for this county what we need now and what we need to look at in the future.”

In addition, Burkhardt said Mosaics of Mercy is working with Tri-County to compile a public database of available mental health resources to help with the difficulty of finding a provider.

With the growing need and lack of access, Shannon Brown, Refuge Counseling Center’s clinical director and co-owner, said the counseling center and Texas Grand Chapel are working to create a campus in Conroe known as The Refuge with a cafeteria, church and counseling center to serve the spiritual, physical and social needs of the community. The two organizations are looking for land and raising funds.

“That’s why the whole team is coming together to make sure we’re doing what we feel is our responsibility, but it’s also necessary for the community to remove as many barriers as we can,” Brown said. “There was a trend of need long before COVID[-19] hits. I think people re-emerging into society are notifying it of more than a crisis level.”

Local resources

1. Mosaics of mercy

33114 Forest W. St., Magnolia

346-703-0051

www.mosaicsofmercy.com

2. NAMI Greater Houston

713-970-4483

www.namigreaterhouston.org

3. Watershed Advisory Center

14855 Liberty St., Montgomery

936-297-5252

www.watershedcounselingcenter.com

4. Tripartite Behavioral Health Care

800-659-6994 (crisis hotline)

800-550-8408

Home

5. Texas Mental Health Crisis Line

Call or text 988.

Listen to The Houston Breakdown, a podcast from Journal of Community Impactfor more information on this story.

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