Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Mental health officer shares local resources for rural communities

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Although individuals living in rural communities experience similar rates of mental illness, they often have less access to resources than those living in urban areas.

Approximately 65% of rural counties in the U.S. lack psychiatrists, and over 60% of rural Americans live in an area with a mental health provider shortage, according to a 2020 study by the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science.

As a mental health deputy and the law enforcement liaison for Central Counties Services, Eric Fox teaches law enforcement agencies how to respond to mental health calls in four rural counties in Central Texas, including Coryell County. During the Gatesville Exchange Club’s weekly meeting on Thursday, Jan. 25, Fox shared where individuals can find local mental health resources as well as how they can support their loved ones or themselves.

Between local law enforcement agencies, Fox said Gatesville received nearly 600 mental health calls between 2022 and 2023, which is almost double from the year before.

“I think in reference to the mental health situation not just in this community but in most of the rural communities it’s sort of two or three-fold,” Fox said. “It’s being talked about more. People are realizing there is some help for mental health.”

Fox adds that throughout the years he has also seen a rise in juvenile calls. He believes social media is one factor that contributes to an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression, especially within the younger generation.

“Social media, the internet, it has its place (and) there’s a lot of good in it, but there’s a lot of bad in it too,” he said.

Because there are a limited number of active mental health facilities and psychiatrists in Coryell County, Fox advises contacting law enforcement if someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. He explains that many local sheriff’s deputies as well as police officers have been through the mental health training to determine if an individual needs help. This includes asking a series of questions to assess if they have become a danger to themselves or someone else.

“Everybody that I’ve seen through my courses that I teach up here in Gatesville, they have that resource list,” Fox said. “They have a list of numbers they can call; they have a list of facilities they can either take somebody to if they need to, or if the family wants to take them somewhere to get some help, they have those.”

For someone with a mental illness, Fox said having a support system can make a difference. He encourages family members or loved ones to find a mental health training course that teaches the signs and symptoms of someone who might be experiencing a mental health crisis.

“You can step in as a friend, family member, or loved one and get them to some help or get them steered toward somebody,” he said. “You don’t have to wait until they are in that mental health crisis to where they are ready to hurt themselves or hurt somebody else to get them help.”

Fox also recommends calling the number for United Ways of Texas at 2-1-1, which can connect people with various resources in their local area, including the closest mental health facility, therapist, or psychiatrist. Other resources include the suicide prevention hotline number at 9-8-8.

Fox believes the decrease in the stigma against mental health as well as the growth in awareness has contributed to more people seeking help. 

“EMS has more training, law enforcement has more training, and we’re trying to put this kind of information out so that the public has more training,” he said.

Before joining Central Counties Services, Fox spent his first his first 20 years in law enforcement with the Killeen Police Department and then about seven years with Coryell County Sheriff’s Office as head of its crisis intervention unit, which specifically responded to mental health calls.

Fox also works as a reserve mental health officer for the Gatesville Police Department by providing them with information on the mental health landscape within the community. He trains law enforcement agencies in a mental health officer certification course as well as a 40-hour crisis intervention course.

Central Counties Services is a state-funded community clinic with offices in Bell, Coryell, Hamilton, Lampasas, and Milam counties. They offer services to rural counties by providing adults with behavioral and developmental health needs with counseling, medication management, housing and employment support, and more.

The Gatesville clinic is located at 615 East Main Street and can be reached at 254-865-7504.

“There is help out there for folks with mental illness – they don’t necessarily have to be in a mental health crisis,” Fox said. “If you have a friend or loved one or somebody that needs mental health help then you can get them those resources, get them those phone numbers, or even just get them to 2-1-1 to get the ball rolling before they get to the point where they are in a mental health crisis.”