Featuring local experts who champion mental health in their respective fields, the panel discussion also highlighted key issues impacting the mental health of our community and how we can work through them together.
There has been an increased awareness on the importance of maintaining one’s mental health to lead a healthy life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people are getting the help they need. In fact, while mental health problems affect tens of millions of people each year, only about half of individuals with a mental health disorder receive treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Addressing Mental Health as a Community
To discuss the ongoing needs within the Rio Grande Valley and how to better tackle them as a community, local leaders specializing in mental health joined South Texas Health System Behavioral and Region One Education Service Center for a panel discussion on “Addressing Mental Health as a Community.” Hearing from various voices working to improve the mental stability of the Rio Grande Valley in their own ways helped shed light on how mental health needs have changed over the years, what resources are available locally and propelled the idea that a mental health problem is nothing to feel shamed about.
Brooke Williamson, co-founder of Mental Monarchs, a non-profit that aims to dispel the stigma surrounding mental health, said they are seeing a change. “I’m seeing more and more parents willing to come into the room and take responsibility for some of the roles that they play in the discussion, but I think that, as far as the Rio Grande Valley goes, the generational trauma that has long been here, is slowly starting to come down,” Williamson said. “I think people are starting to recognize what healthy relationships look like with other people, with yourself, with food — with everything — especially at school.”
Dalinda Gonzalez-Alcantar, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of McAllen, noted how the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in destabilizing the mental health of so many individuals, including children. “Everyone has gone through trauma because we’ve all gone through a pandemic,” Gonzalez-Alcantar said. “What school districts are seeing is that every child that enters our doors during after school programing has some level of trauma that’s associated with the pandemic.”
“For so long, we expected kids to be in isolation so that led to loneliness and now we definitely are seeing an onset of anxious tendencies, kids that are extremely overwhelmed and overstimulated,” Gonzalez-Alcantar added. “We definitely have more kids that are struggling with depression and a lot of it really did stem from the pandemic and then coming back out.”
Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic also caused an increase in stress among parents who may have lost their job and are now feeling anxiety over providing for their families, according to Albert Gonzalez, a nurse practitioner at STHS Behavioral. Gonzalez said this may lead parents to turn to drugs or have suicidal thoughts and this has prompted an influx of individuals seeking help from STHS Behavioral. “All of those challenges have created an increased need to come into the hospital,” Gonzalez said.
Opportunity for Growth
When it comes to accessing the needed help, the state of Texas has a lot of work to do compared to other states. In fact, Texas ranks #46 for the prevalence of mental illness and rates of access for people under 18 years old. Roxanne Ramirez, Executive Director, Hope Family Health Center, said she wasn’t surprised by the ranking, noting that the rate of poverty, which is high in the Rio Grande Valley, is a significant determinant of health and quality of life.
The Rio Grande Valley is also home to a large population of uninsured residents, but Ramirez said there are ways to meet their needs. “Awareness of it is the first step. It’s us being aware, here collectively, what do you do and what do you do for the community?” Ramirez said. “What Hope does for the community is we bridge the gap for the uninsured and we provide the counseling, the medical and the integrated services and it’s completely free for our residents.”
The mental health panel was held on the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in Uvalde where 19 children and two teachers died at Robb Elementary School. Nick Perez-Zepeda, an officer with the Pharr Police Department’s mental health unit, said officers are continuing to train at a regional level for those types of emergency situations. “A lot of the times, it’s not just one agency that goes out to shootings like this, it will be a multi-agency incident, so they’re continuously training when it comes to special responses,” Perez-Zepeda said. “But aside from that, you have your chaplains, you have your mental health units and patrolmen all training on the same level to be able to provide that same service for an incident like this.”
Destigmatizing Mental Health
It’s important to talk openly about mental health, which helps improve our communities by making it more acceptable for those suffering from mental illnesses to seek help, learn to cope and get on the recovery.
“There’s a universal stigma surrounding mental health, especially among the Latino community. People often avoid or delay seeking treatment due to concerns about being judged, treated differently or fear of losing their jobs and livelihood,” says Tom Castañeda, System Director of Marketing & Public Relations, South Texas Health System, who moderated the panel discussion. “Avoiding treatment for mental health conditions can lead to poorer outcomes, including relapse, higher rates of suicide and poor physical health. That’s why it’s important to bring the community together and host events like this one to open the lines of communication and hopefully inspire others to talk about their own struggles and seek treatment, if necessary.”
South Texas Health System Behavioral has served the South Texas community for more than 30 years, with a commitment to the detection and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. If you are concerned about your mental health or that of a loved one, help is available at STHS Behavioral. An evaluation by a mental health professional can help clarify underlying issues and provide recommendations for next steps. For a confidential assessment, call the STHS Behavioral hotline, available 24/7, at 956-388-1300.