Public mental health in Texas underfunded 


Mental health help is a common discussion on college campuses, but the legal side is often overlooked in the conversation.

Mental health help is a common discussion on college campuses, but the legal side is often overlooked in the conversation.

Brian Shannon, Paul Whitfield Horn professor at the Texas Tech School of Law, said mental health programs are not always well funded by the state.

“For a number of years, the public mental health systems in Texas and a number of other states have been underfunded,” Shannon said, “yet with a growing population, persons with mental illness are going to, you know, be in the communities and in need of services.”

While people with mental illness can commit violent crimes like the rest of the population, he said many end up in jail for things like loitering, simple theft, vagrancy or drug offenses, which is a manifestation of their illnesses.

“Unfortunately, with a lack of significant community based services, many times, sadly, individuals get caught up in the criminal justice system,” Shannon said, “and, you know, people with mental illness by and large are no more prone to committing crimes than others.”

Some with mental illness may be diagnosed for the first time while in jail, Shannon said, and they cannot stand trial if they do not have awareness of the proceedings and cannot assist their legal counsel.

Many times, if someone is seen as not competent to stand trial, Shannon said the court will order them to competency restoration treatment so that they may stand trial or reach a plea agreement.

“These are illnesses of the brain,” he said, “just like your pancreas can get sick, your brain can get ill.”

The brain is an important organ that is supposed to send signals to someone when something is wrong, Shannon said, but if it is not functioning properly then there can be a lack of recognition or insight.

If a person refuses to get mental care, friends and family can file a civil legal suit, Shannon said, and the court will assess that person to see if they may have a mental illness and if they are or could potentially become a danger to themselves or others.

Dr. Kelly Bennett, medical director at Student Health Services and professor of family medicine at Tech’s Health Sciences Center, said mental health problems can act as an explanation for why someone is in legal troubles, but it is not an excuse.

“The court systems will usually take that explanation into account,” Bennett said, “and that’s why we have the ability to, you know, have people plead innocent by reason of insanity.”

She compared the situation to doctors writing sick notes for patients. It may not excuse the person, Bennett said, but it acts as an explanation for why they may have missed work or school.

Public mental health in Texas underfunded | News |