Williamson Commissioner Cook: Mental illness impacts us all

Attendees chat during the April 6 open house of the Williamson County Diversion Center in Georgetown, a partnership between the Commissioners Court and Bluebonnet Trails Community Services.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. So much is being declared the result of mental illness, but why?

Yes, our youths are suffering from high levels of anxiety post-pandemic. Would it be the same without COVID having gotten in the way of their developing social lives? Is it the result of being tied to social media on smartphones? Is it the result of failing to develop social skills (phone/pandemic/isolation)? Have they just lost the hope previous generations held to in the maturation journey?

The data on mental illness is pretty clear: one in five people are affected by mental illness each year; one in 20 adults in the U.S. will experience a serious mental health illness that negatively impacts their lives, their families, schools, places of employment and their community. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14(!), and 75% of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 24. Sadly, it is reported that the average delay in treatment following onset symptoms is a whopping 11 years.

The Lott Building in Georgetown houses the Williamson County Diversion Center, which provides 23-hour crisis observation and psychiatric care formed as a partnership between the Commissioners Court and Bluebonnet Trails Community Services.

So, what forms does mental illness take? Many general terms are used to describe mental illness: mental disorder, serious emotional disorder, extreme emotional distress, psychiatric illness, mental illness, nervous exhaustion, mental breakdown, nervous breakdown and burnout. These terms do not really describe what a person is truly experiencing. The most common descriptive mental illnesses are depression and anxiety disorders. Less common are psychosis, substance use disorders and eating disorders.

Terry Cook

Our state and federal governments for years have limited or completely closed their funding to expand mental illness treatment centers. No new state-funded treatment facilities have been opened in decades in Texas. Waitlists tend to be years-long; this is especially troublesome for violent offenders diagnosed with a mental illness. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of teenage deaths, with fentanyl overdoses commanding the lead in those deaths. Substance abuse and mental illness are often closely associated.

More: Williamson Commissioner Cook: It's 2023 and our resolutions are …

Should a nonviolent person with mental illness or suffering from a mental health crisis run afoul of the law, our governments hold them in their jails and juvenile facilities, as there is no other, more appropriate facility generally available, unless a family has rather generous insurance or the means to pay a private facility.

Recognizing that counties are serving as the public mental health facilities today with their jails and juvenile justice centers, Williamson County has led much of the country in training our jail and Juvenile Justice Center personnel in recognizing mental illness and using appropriate approaches to interacting with those people displaying evidence of mental disorders.

More: Williamson Co. Commissioner Cook: Newest court helps families make it together

Partnering with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, our local mental health authority, and with the aid of grants and direct taxpayer investments, a sophisticated web of recovery-oriented systems of care have been established across the county. Programs like crisis response, skilled evaluations and case management have been implemented, and respite centers (for both youths and adults) established. Additional services are still being developed. Fortunately, these programs are also available within our justice system, including our courts, working to restore normalcy and vitality in people, families and communities.

For our youths who’ve tangled with the law, our Juvenile Justice Center has implemented a trauma-based relational intervention approach that has been extremely successful turning around the lives of kids who didn’t get there by accident. Often there is generational trauma at play in their lives or multiple major traumatic events forming their responses in life’s journey. Investing in each young life with supportive concern and care leads them to recovery and teaches them appropriate responses to stimuli in their environments rather than responding with violence, illegal drug use, criminal activity or truancy.

Bluebonnet Trails plays a large role in mental health evaluation and counseling in our community and schools. There are respite centers established for both adults (in Georgetown) and youths (at Bluebonnet Trails in Round Rock), and one more being built at the Rock Springs facility (in Georgetown) for youths. Counselors from Bluebonnet Trails respond to mental health crises in-person when called at 844-309-6385.

What can you do? There is a free class offered from time-to-time called Mental Health First Aid. It is about six hours long, is interactive and so informative. The manual is about $10, if you can afford it, but everyone who attends the class will get one, and it is a very useful reference tool.  Contact NAMI of Central Texas at (512) 420-9810 or at namicentraltx.org for information on the class.

Productive and fulfilling lives can be lived even with lifetime mental illness. If it happens to someone you know, be there for them, listen with empathy and give nonjudgmental support. Recovery is not a linear path. Equip yourself with knowledge and don’t hesitate to involve professional support for them.

Terry Cook is county commissioner of Precinct 1, which includes most of Round Rock, most of Austin in Williamson County and part of southern Cedar Park.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Williamson Commissioner Terry Cook: Mental illness impacts us all