(From left) Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard, State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26), State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-124), State Rep. Diana Arévalo (D-116), and MHM President and CEO Kevin Moriarty participate in a panel discussion on mental health in Texas. Credit: Roseanna Garza / San Antonio Report

Over the course of the Texas Legislature’s 85th regular session lawmakers produced several bills aimed at improving mental health care throughout the state and upholding funding despite cuts in other areas.

Untreated or undertreated mental health and substance abuse issues are taking a toll on communities across Texas, with the tremendous financial burden on local governments increasing as rapidly as the emotional burden on individuals and families.

Methodist Healthcare Ministries (MHM) hosted a panel discussion Tuesday at the Pearl Studio to review the struggles and successes in mental health legislation proposed during the most recent regular session, which ended in May.

In a discussion led by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard, State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26), State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-124), and State Rep. Diana Arévalo (D-116)  joined MHM President and CEO Kevin Moriarty in analyzing how new mental health legislation impacts Texas’ most vulnerable populations.

Before the panel convened, Minjarez was named legislative “rookie of the year” by Texas Monthly, commending her for her work on more than two dozen substantive amendments to major legislation, including foster care reform bills and the state budget.

During the regular session, David’s Law (Senate Bill 179) was passed. The bill, which was proposed shortly after Alamo Heights teen David Molak took his own life in 2016, classifies cyberbullying as a misdemeanor. It allows courts to issue subpoenas to unmask people who anonymously harass minors online and requires public schools to report and intervene in suspected cyberbullying cases. It also allows victims to sue cyberbullies’ parents if they failed to intervene.

Menéndez said David’s Law is “the hardest, most important, most difficult [bill] I have worked on.”

David’s Law critics argued that prevention is more effective than punishment. “There was concern that the bill [would be a] pipeline from school to jail, and once jailed, the person may not receive appropriate education or redirection,” Minjarez said.

Lawmakers have made several additions to the bill since it was initially introduced, most notably to include the option for school districts to create a mental health plan that addresses suicide prevention and bullying. This would allow school leadership to use exclusionary disciplinary actions alongside redirection and education at its own discretion.

Bullying is prevalent throughout all districts in Texas, Arévalo said, which is why David’s Law “hits so close to home, [and why] it makes everything you’re doing [to pass a bill] real.”

Menéndez also sponsored House Bill 337 in the Senate, which aims to reduce recidivism and save money by suspending Medicaid benefits during confinement in county jails and, in most cases, reinstating benefits upon release.

Under current law, Medicaid benefits are suspended when individuals enter a detention facility; however, they are not automatically reinstated upon their release.

“How do people with no address or phone, and [who are] not in the right state of mind, reapply for benefits” after being released from jail, Menéndez asked.

The goal of the bill, therefore, is to ensure that individuals with mental health diagnoses do not see a gap in services. Losing coverage for many means they are unable to receive necessary medication and treatment upon their release, further complicating the effects of their diagnoses.

Panel participants all spoke candidly about the bipartisan divide they had to overcome to get their legislation passed. “If the bill had an author that was a Democrat, it was ‘Obamacare,’” Menéndez said. As a result, Democratic legislators had to work diligently to get a “yes” out of Republicans in order to further their bills.

For Minjarez, the work of passing mental health legislation was grueling, yet fulfilling. “It was tough, and that is what makes it that much sweeter,” she said, adding that the State has made progress toward strengthening mental health care throughout Texas.

In recent years elected representatives have become increasingly aware of the human and financial costs of untreated mental health and substance use problems. Many have also realized how widespread mental health needs are.

In 2015, House Speaker Joe Straus created the Select Committee on Mental Health, which worked to develop a plan to reassess the State’s approach to mental health care.

The comprehensive report showed how all the pieces of the system interact and how reforming them through informed decision-making could improve care throughout the state.

Additional bills that worked their way through the Legislature include SB 1849 – also known as the “Sandra Bland Act” – which makes key changes for mentally ill individuals in law enforcement custody, such as better screening processes, a focus on diversion into treatment for low-level offenses, and access to mental health professionals while incarcerated.

SB 1326 aims to improve how those with mental illness proceed through the criminal justice system, after a committee of the Texas Judicial Council found that diverting people with mental illness out of jail and into treatment is more humane and cost-effective than repeated arrests.

For a comprehensive list of bills and resolutions from the 85th Legislature, click here.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.