SPECIAL REPORT: Mental healthcare shortage directly impacting South Texas

6:00 PM, Nov 15, 2018

Local experts say the lack of mental healthcare professionals in South Texas is putting a strain on police and medical resources and putting public safety at risk.

“It’s a crisis. It’s been a crisis coming for awhile, and it’s not even hit as hard as it will,” Dr. John Lusins said.

Doctors say this is part of a nationwide epidemic: the growing number of people in need of mental healthcare services, and a declining number of people qualified to provide that help.

Dr. John Lusins is the chair of the psychiatry department at the Corpus Christi Medical Center and said some of the mental healthcare providers in South Texas aren’t even board certified.

“They didn’t go through the training programs, which, they do a well enough job in an area where there’s a lack of providers, but it’s not the best situation,” Lusins said.

Additionally, the growing number of people in need of these mental health services who go untreated is depleting law enforcement resources.

“Our patrol officers are handling these situations on a daily basis. In 2017, we had approximately 4,000 calls for service that were mental health related,” Officer Denise Pace said.

For more than a decade, the Corpus Christi Police Department has been trying to manage the growing number of people in need of psychiatric help with few places to go.

“Recently we saw, just because of this overcrowding, a patient who was psychotic attack another patient. That’s what happens when you’ve got a lack of resources and they have to crowd the ER’s,” Dr. Lusins said.

In 2007, a Crisis Intervention Team was created by the police force, in which officers undergo a 40-hour training program to learn deescalation tactics. Currently, 81 Corpus Christi Police officers are certified in this mental health course.

“We cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem. We have to look at it and we have to look at the reason why these individuals are homeless, and why they’re having issues and get them the services that they need,” Officer Pace said.

But the CIT wasn’t enough. In July, the department appointed a Crisis Intervention Investigator, whose sole role is to respond to mental health calls.

“Because we want to get them out of the criminal justice system and back into the mental healthcare system where they belong, because these people are sick,” Pace said.

Officer Amber Buckelew is on-call at all times, waiting to intervene in potentially dangerous situations.

“A lot of our people are homeless, and they don’t have family, they don’t have friends. They don’t have anybody checking up on them to see, ‘Have you taken your meds? How are you doing on your sobriety?’ Nobody is asking those questions,” Officer Buckelew said.

Buckelew and her team consistently check on people they’re concerned about. The team works with local shelters and substance abuse facilities to connect those people to the help they need. In some cases, Buckelew and other officers will drive those people to doctor’s appointments and court appearances.

Dr. Lusins said there are several reasons for this growing crisis, but one in particular stands out. More doctors are choosing to work in hospitals as opposed to private practices, which creates a shortage of outpatient psychiatrists.

“I know we can’t absorb all those patients, so where will they go?,” Lusins asked.

Additionally, there aren’t enough places for people to seek help for drug and alcohol abuse. That can lead to a ripple effect in the community, and your tax dollars end up funding it.

“The biggest psychiatric hospital because of this crisis is the Nueces County Jail,” Lusins said.

Sheriff John Chris Hooper said 22 percent of people currently housed in the county jail are mentally ill.

“Some of them might not belong in jail, even if they were involved in criminal activity, there probably should be other treatment and process for the mentally challenged,” Sheriff Hooper said.

Typically when someone is picked up by law enforcement officers and is deemed a “danger to themselves or others,” they are committed and taken to the Behavioral Health wing at Spohn Memorial Hospital, but little activity at the facility has many people questioning if those mental health services will continue.

A CHRISTUS Spohn spokesperson told KRIS 6 News the services will continue, but what’s not yet known is where. The possibilities include staying at Spohn Memorial, or relocating to another facility.

But local experts can all agree, the biggest solution to the crisis is figuring out how to attract the top-notch mental health professionals desperately needed in the Coastal Bend.

“I think communication, recruitment, and waiting and hoping, I hate to say it, but is kind of where we’re at right now,” Dr. Lusins said.

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