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Mental Notes on the Budget

For mental health and retardation centers like Round Rock's Bluebonnet Trails, state budget cuts will have a direct effect on the number of people they serve — and help keep in school or employed and out of state hospitals and emergency rooms. Ben Philpott of KUT News and the Tribune reports.

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Early budget debates are filled with plenty of cost-cutting buzzwords. Finding efficiencies, trimming the fat, justifying investment. Things that Andrea Richardson says aren't easy to do when talking about money spent on community mental health services.  

"It's difficult to measure that value until you look at the impact on our communities," said Richardson, the executive director of Round Rock's Bluebonnet Trails, a community mental health and mental retardation center servering eight counties in Central Texas. "When you look at the persons that will wind up in jail, in the state hospitals and in our emergency rooms, or persons that will no longer be able to be at work or be in school effectively — that's the value we provide."

Richardson said that while benefits from mental health services may be hard to quantify in a budget, the effect of budget cuts is an easy equation. "In 2010 we served almost 16,000 persons. For the next biennium what we've determined from those numbers is that we're going to be able to serve 3,400 persons fewer than we did in 2010," she said — 1,900 adults and 1,500 kids cut loose. 

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

Barry Cunningham has services for now. He has a bipolar disorder, and he has had a drug addiction over the years which has lead to some jail time. He came to Bluebonnet needing rehab and a stable environment. He says he was lucky to find both. He worries what will happen to others in need if budget cuts take away future treatment opportunities.

"Probably more people locked up in jails … institutionalized. I don't really know the whole picture of how the system works but I'd hate to see the services taken away," he said.

Bill Gilstrap knows what happens to him without support. Before moving to Bastrop in 1997 and getting help at Bluebonnet, his mental illness cycled in and out of control. "I've lived in the bushes. I've come off the streets into programs like this in St. Louis, in Seattle," Gilstrap said. "I'll pick myself up and work for a time. And then my symptoms will become severe again and I'll retreat into a pretty dysfunctional way of living."

He said listening to the state budget debate, especially over proposed health and human services budget cuts, has been a blow. The talk has transformed him from a person to a cost center — a thing that could hurt the Texas economy, if taxes are raised to pay for the services he uses.

"The fact that I'm able to live in the community, be a respected part of the community, be a taxpayer, be a homeowner — how do you say that my tax revenue shouldn't be spent for that because it's benefitted me entirely?" he said. "I'm not dependent on the Texas economic engine. … I'm a part of it."

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