A Texas counselor’s message to lawmakers: Follow the research when investing in mental health

Licensed professional counselor Martin Sauer says establishing better coordination between schools and community mental health providers is one important step.

By Laura Rice & Gabriella YbarraJune 8, 2022 2:22 pm, ,

Martin Sauer says he’s frustrated with how politicians talk about mental health after tragedies like the Uvalde shooting.

Sauer has spent most of the past three decades counseling young people. He’s a licensed professional counselor based in Amarillo. He agrees Texas needs to invest more in mental health – but says the conversations need to be research-based and should focus on practical investments that will improve mental health access and coordination among providers.

Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: If you had the ear of the Texas Legislature, what would you want them to know about the needs of counselors across the state?

Martin Sauer: My first thought would be to ask a question, which would be, “when they say mental health, what do they mean?” Because I’m not hearing anything that equates with what I believe is about mental health.

Mental health is a pretty complicated and very diverse thing. We’ve got our psychiatrists at the top of the food chain and then we’ve got counselors in the trenches, basically. You’ve got school counselors and people in private practice. You know, we’re kind of all over the place providing different services.

What can we do to intercept people in crisis and hopefully protect others from events like what happened in Uvalde?

Just like the police are supposed to get training in terms of what kind of responses to give to crises, school districts should get training in terms of what to do when there’s crises with our kids. Unless the child is disturbed enough to end up at the local psych wing at the hospital or to be arrested, generally speaking, they’ll just tell the parent, “I think your kid needs counseling.” At that point, the ball gets dropped a lot of times.

What could Texas do to ensure that fewer people are falling through the gaps?

For the most part, I don’t think we need to come up with new research. I think we already have research that’s available on all sorts of levels in terms of what kind of interventions work in what kind of cases.

So, you’re saying speak to the experts in mental health if you’re serious about doing something with mental health in Texas?


Are there enough providers for mental health services?

No, there aren’t. There are several reasons for that. Especially in rural areas, it’s hard to get people who have spent quite a bit of money on their degrees to go out to the rural areas. For a psychiatrist, it’s over 12 years, for a master’s level counselor like myself, that’s six years plus 3,000 hours of internship, which can be also really difficult because there’s not a whole lot of places where one can get [those] internship hours, especially paid internship hours.

Is there something that needs to be done to standardize the Texas approach when it comes to mental health care, especially as children are involved?

What we need is a team approach [where] the school districts work more closely with mental health professionals, making referrals to psychiatrists, making referrals to counselors. And for the most part, the schools really rarely ever make outside referrals.

I think a lot of parents think the school counselor is that first line of interaction, and in some cases, perhaps defense if we’re talking about a real crisis. Is that accurate?

School counselors have been put in the position of having to wear hats that don’t have a whole lot to do with counseling. They’re mostly involved in academic and disciplinary issues. So, being able to provide actual counseling to students, they just don’t have the time.

I think that mental health has come a long way in terms of how we can treat children. I think we’re recognizing how childhood development has a lot to do with child behavior, so I just think it’s a new era.

When you’re talking to other professionals, what do you hear them say needs to be done with regard to mental health in young people?

More funding, more opportunities to serve. The Medicaid expansion that Texas and other conservative states keep turning down would help considerably. And, I think there could be more emphasis on destigmatizing getting mental health help.

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