When Texas lawmakers return to Austin this month for the 88th legislative session, the Hogg Foundation policy team plans to hit the ground running. As part of The University of Texas, the Hogg Foundation can’t directly lobby for or against specific legislation, but we can keep mental health and substance use issues front and center by providing policy makers with important background information, context, and recommendations for funding that support mental well-being.
In this episode of Into the Fold, we speak with the Hogg Foundation’s policy team, Alison Mohr Boleware, director of policy; Shannon Hoffman, policy program officer; and Angela Ott, policy fellow, about what to expect from the upcoming session and what it means to do mental health policy work in these politically polarized times.
What to Expect
Lawmakers are coming into this year’s session with a big budget and big ideas, says Alison Mohr Boleware, director of policy. They’ll also be facing a contentious social and political climate with voting rights, immigration, and abortion access among the hot-button issues sure to stir debate and discord.
In keeping with the Hogg Foundation’s goal to effect systemic change that improves the mental health and well-being of people across Texas, our policy engagement will prioritize three overarching themes: community health, equity, and access. Some of our specific concerns, including school safety, LGBTQIA+ rights, and substance use, are also likely to be caught up in the current politicized environment.
Safe and Supportive Schools
When it comes to addressing students’ mental health, the Hogg emphasizes “upstream” approaches that foster safe and supportive schools for every Texas student.
This means we’ll work to broaden policymakers’ perspective on school safety beyond the current focus on “hardening” campuses with physical security measures. By increasing their awareness of strategies that address school safety by improving the overall school climate, we hope to increase their support for accessible school-based mental health services.
“Currently in Texas, there are no dedicated dollars going directly to schools for the sole purpose of [supporting] mental health,” says Alison. “I hope Texas is able to [budget for] a school mental health allotment that is adequately funded to ensure all school districts can identify what the gaps and opportunities are in their communities and locally make decisions to support students and staff.”
It’s imperative that the state prioritizes “getting dollars to districts” to support mental health, Alison says.
During the last legislative session, Texas lawmakers filed more bills than ever before (and more bills than any other state) with the potential to impact LGBTQIA+ rights. And although just a single bill ultimately passed into law, our policy team expects to see new bills filed that reflect ongoing hostility toward the LGBTQIA+ community.
New bills will likely propose restricting gender-affirming services, amending the definition of child abuse to include gender-affirming care (including counseling and other mental health care, not just medical care), and limiting how LGBTQIA+ issues are discussed in public schools.
Recognizing that this kind of politicized policymaking has negative mental health implications, our policy team will continue its efforts to ensure LGBTQIA+ Texans receive equal access to mental health services, supports, and community resources that promote their mental health and well-being.
“Texas has made steps in the right direction, [to address substance use] but there’s still a lot of progress to be made,” says Alison.
For example, state Medicaid reimbursement for peer-support services in substance use treatment has increased and Governor Greg Abbott recently expressed support for decriminalizing fentanyl testing strips as an overdose prevention strategy.
Our policy team recognizes the need to make further legislative inroads into harm reduction and overdose prevention strategies that save lives and provide connections to services, however. Their priorities include removing remaining insurance coverage gaps, reducing waitlists for state funded services, and eliminating other barriers to recovery, such as community stigma and lack of transportation.
Addressing suicide prevention, especially among foster youth, will also be a priority this session, says policy fellow Angela Ott.
“We need to ‘plant the seeds’ that this is a dire issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later,” she says.
Youth in the foster care system attempt suicide at a much higher rate than the general population, yet the Texas Department of Family Protective Service doesn’t maintain records or collect data that represents the true scope of the problem.
“Data is a big issue,” says Angela. “Anecdotally we know it’s happening, but if you don’t have the data or the numbers, you can’t really drive change in the legislature. We’re really hoping that we can get some better data on suicide in Texas and use that to drive change.”
Shannon Hoffman, program policy officer, notes that policy makers could also be doing more to address the role that housing availability plays in mental health.
“We’re hoping to help turn on those lightbulbs for some of the decision makers on what things are and what they are not,” says Shannon, “I think there are a lot of misconceptions and just lack of understanding around some issues, because they’re getting a lot of information about a lot of things in a really short period of time.”
Some progress on housing issues has been made, including legislative investments in state hospital redesigns, community supports, and a study to evaluate ‘recovery housing.’ Moving forward, the Hogg policy team plans to continue educating lawmakers about the urgent need for supportive housing for individuals transitioning from mental health institutions back into their community and for improved access to high-quality recovery housing.
“My hope is that the legislators can put away some of these more controversial, flashy issues and really focus on ‘meat and potatoes’ issues,” says Alison. “I hope they really think about what is best for all Texans and really think about community wellness.”