After a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde last week, Gov. Greg Abbott called for better mental health resources in order to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
“We as a state, we as a society need to do a better job with mental health,” Abbott said the day after the shooting. “Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge. Period. We as a government need to find a way to target that mental health challenge and to do something about it.”
But Abbott’s administration has redirected funds from the state agency responsible for mental health. Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission was one of the agencies the state took money from to help finance Operation Lone Star, the governor’s border security mission.
Mike Hixenbaugh, a Texas-based senior investigative reporter for NBC News, spoke to Texas Standard about the state’s mental health spending. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: You wrote about this 211 million or so dollars that have been taken from the state’s Health and Human Services. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that money was used for?
Mike Hixenbaugh: Well, that was for the Health and Human Services Department, which is the state agency that, among many other things, oversees mental health care. And the reason we called that out is it shows a disconnect between the comments that Gov. Abbott has made about supporting mental health and wanting to give Texans better access to mental health care to prevent these tragedies. Because in the state of Texas, his record on this issue has been the opposite.
This is a state that ranks last in the country in terms of access to mental health resources, in part because of the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid. And at the school level, 98% of Texas students attend schools that lack adequate counselors. And that was a finding from the Houston Chronicle in April. So you can see a disconnect where the governor is saying mental health is the most important issue, But the Texas GOP record on this does not reflect that being an urgent concern.
We should note that some of the money that was taken for Operation Lone Star from the existing budget was backfilled by federal COVID relief funds. The Treasury Department is investigating the use of those federal funds. You spoke to a number of public health experts about the relationship between public spending and mental health outcomes. What did they tell you?
I think there’s broad consensus that having school counselors helps kids who are struggling, having access to curriculum like social emotional learning, which are programs designed to help kids cope with their emotions. Those are all helpful. I should note that those are all things that have come under fire from conservatives this year and have been branded as a Trojan horse for critical race theory. So those have come under attack, even though they’re helpful. But ultimately, what the experts told us was that is just one piece of a much bigger equation. Ultimately, access to firearms is something that has to be discussed in this conversation.
Let’s talk about that when when public officials bring up the need to increase mental health resources. Is that taking our eye off the ball too much or is there room to do that?
It’s all of the things. Separate it from mass shootings at schools. Mental health and teen mental health is, some argue, in a crisis situation in America and needs to be addressed separate from any fears about a mass shootings. Teen suicide rates and thoughts of depression are increasing. But the other aspect of this is, are there policies that might limit troubled young teens and young men’s access to weapons that are capable of firing hundreds of rounds in a matter of minutes and penetrating body armor. The advocates I talked to said it makes sense to think about school security, which is the number one Republican talking point right now. It makes sense to think about making sure teen mental health is adequately cared for. But the other piece that is also crucial is talking about how easy is it for young men and teens to access firearms? Should there be some restrictions on their access to that and not put all of the onus on mental health care?