Kemah woman helps mentally ill man, says mental health system fails patients

Houston psychologists bust myths regarding mental health and violence

By Rose-Ann Aragon - Reporter

KEMAH, Texas - After the devastating Parkland, Florida shooting, the ongoing conversation about mental health has ramped up considerably. KPRC looked into some of the holes that experts say plague our nation's mental health system.

One Kemah woman had to jump through many hoops just to get one man care. She said the stigma that surrounds mental health and the lack of resources for those in need are keeping people from getting better.

Ginger Sprouse passed by the corner of NASA Parkway and El Camino Real every morning on her way to work. In the corner of her eye, she'd always see Victor Hubbard, a man experiencing homelessness. One day, she decided she'd stop and help.

"He would wave his hands in the air and touch the light pole and pace. He wasn't just standing around the corner asking for money. He never did that," Sprouse said.

A year and a half ago, she decided to stop and meet him.

"The Lord wanted me to stop and talk to him so I did," Sprouse said.

What she never expected was that she'd find a friend, a then 32-year-old man she'd be determined to help.

"What I discovered was a really sweet, sweet, kind, gentle person that had some problems with his mind," Sprouse said.

Hubbard had mental health issues, but Sprouse soon found that getting him the help he needed was excruciatingly difficult. Sprouse said she'd try to call for help, but because of privacy laws, she could not help. In the rare case he'd get treatment, she said it was not effective.

"They would pick him up, hospitalize him and give him medicine for a week and when he was stable they would release him, and he'd be on the street again," Sprouse said.

Barriers to getting mental health care

Hubbard's case highlights what many psychologists say are holes in today's mental health system. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), Texas is rated second to last in per capita mental health funding compared to other U.S. states; 45 percent of people who have mental health illnesses are uninsured; and 14,000 mentally ill adults in Harris County, like Hubbard, do not have adequate housing.

Sprouse said she went back and forth with many service providers but to no avail. Service providers, she said, had their hands tied as well.

"Victor didn't have a driver license, he didn't have an ID, he didn't have a Social Security card. No phone--zero. Nothing. No Access," Sprouse said. "So, I would call, and they would say, 'Well I can't help you--he needs to do it,' and they would say, 'He needs to go online and fill out the paperwork.' Victor didn't have access to any of that."

Glenn Urbach with NAMI said that one major barrier to getting mental health care is a lack of residential treatment and housing support.

"Many people with severe mental illnesses lose their jobs, family ties and homes," Urbach said. "Residential treatment services for children and adults with mental illness are in short supply, even for those with insurance benefits."

The system, he said, makes it difficult for the people who need it to get help.

Because of privacy laws, Sprouse had a hard time trying to help. So, Sprouse gave him a job at her kitchen, Art of the Meal on NASA Parkway. Six months after meeting Hubbard, Sprouse gave him a home -- her home. A year ago this week, Sprouse let Hubbard stay in her family's home.

"He's happy, and he's cheerful, and he's easy-going," Sprouse said. "We are extraordinarily blessed that he is that way."

Hubbard was lucky.

Mental illness & mass shootings

NAMI states that effectively, the third largest mental hospital in the nation is the Harris County Jail. However, are people with mental illnesses dangerous or more prone to committing mass shootings?

Dr. John Vincent, a clinical and forensic psychologist and professor at the University of Houston, said a main barrier that stops people from getting help or stops others from giving help is the stigma of mental illness.

"The so called mentally ill are at no higher risk of committing an act of violence," Vincent said. "Many people who have psychological difficulties never commit violence. In fact, they are likely to be victims of violence. Of the people who commit violence, the vast majority of them are really not mentally ill. So, we tend to pull out the ones in these awful situations where those two things have intersected, but the connection is not what we often think it is."

The American Psychiatric Association asserts that only 3 to 5 percent of firearm assaults are linked to people with serious mental illness.

"There are instances where people really did fall through the cracks, but again, that doesn't mean that the vast majority of people who have psychological difficulties or mental illnesses are going to commit acts of violence. It's a really small number, thank goodness." Vincent said.

Vincent said people with mental illnesses cannot be grouped, as each mental illness can include a variety of conditions.

"There is some indication that people who have some psychiatric, psychological difficulty and also have substance abuse problems are at somewhat of a higher risk of committing violence, but the idea that someone is mentally ill is going to make that person violent I think is really the problem," Vincent said.

Funding

Both Vincent and Urbach said funding is a fundamental issue when it comes to people accessing quality care. Urbach said people wrongfully separate the mind from the body. Urbach said mental health affects the brain and that the symptoms that affect the brain happen to be behavioral. However, he said mental health should be treated like any other physical illness.

"Many providers spend their time begging insurance companies to give them extra days before releasing a patient," Urbach said. "Most insurance companies will say no -- they don't need it. If a doctor asked insurance companies to keep a cancer patient for extra days for chemo, no insurance company would say no."

Vincent said treating mental and physical health on a separate level is illogical.

"In terms of funding mental health, (it) is absolutely a parody. There are aspects of psychological and physical difficulties that are both challenges and we know for a fact that for every psychological (issue) there is, there's all sorts of neurological, biological underpinnings, neurochemistry, genetics -- a host of things that are very physical in nature, but manifest themselves through behavior so the dichotomy of the mind and the body is really a false dichotomy," Vincent said.

Vincent said this dichotomy can also affect the way mental health is funded, as agencies may not see the importance of funding mental health programs.

"Services for the mentally ill are still spread very, very thin, especially for people who don't have very many economic resources," Vincent said. "The folks I am most worried about are folks that don't have resources and are in dire need of mental health services."

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), through the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), estimated there are 500,000 adults and 175,000 children in Texas with the most severe mental health needs.

However, Harris County is ranked 30th out of 34 among local mental health authorities in per capita mental health funding, according to NAMI.

Sprouse said she hopes to continue the conversation to improve mental health conditions so that more people like Hubbard can thrive.

"How is a person supposed to access anything if we make it so difficult?" Sprouse said.

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