Texas State Rep. Senfronia Thompson calls for new state behavioral health institute

February 27, 2019

TX state rep thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson announces House Bill 10 at her press conference. UTHealth’s Elizabeth Newlin, MD, and Consuelo Walss-Bass, PhD, seated at right, spoke in favor of a proposed mental health research institute. (Photo by Deborah Lake/UTHealth)

Texas Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s recent announcement calling for a statewide institute for training, telehealth, and research to improve mental well-being in children included presentations by Elizabeth Newlin, MD, and Consuelo Walss-Bass, PhD, of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Newlin and Walss-Bass participated in a news conference at the Texas Capitol where Thompson, who represents District 141 in Houston, announced House Bill (HB) 10, which aims to create “a healthier state of mind and safer schools for Texas children.”

The bill focuses on increasing the number of child and adolescent psychiatrists and specialized nurses across the state; establishing a telehealth program to connect pediatricians and school health providers with pediatric mental health experts; and creating a Texas Mental & Behavioral Health Research Institute to develop cures and treatment.

“I don’t care how many metal detectors you put in schools. I don’t care how many drills those schools do. They’re not going to be able to solve the problems of school violence and school shootings until we find out why children and adolescents do those things,” Thompson said at the event. “It’s the ‘why’ that I am going after with this bill.”

To fund the program, Thompson also filed House Joint Resolution 5 calling for statewide voter approval of a multibillion-dollar fund that can draw down on matching federal dollars.

Newlin is associate professor and vice chair for child and adolescent psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. She is also chief of child and adolescent services at UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Hospital and associate executive director of the UTHealth Trauma and Resilience Center. Walss-Bass is associate professor, director of the Psychiatric Genetic Program, and director of the UTHealth Brain Collection for Research in Psychiatric Disorders at McGovern Medical School.

“I see kids coming in who are in crisis, who are suicidal, or who maybe have made a terroristic threat at school. Some of these children have a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder,” Newlin said. “When I meet with the parents to talk to them about the child’s condition, very often they want to know ‘How did this happen to my child? Why do they have these diseases? Why did they threaten to kill themselves?’ We are not at a place in psychiatry where I can give a concrete, firm answer. HB 10 has the potential to illuminate some of those answers.”

Newlin also spoke about the shortage of pediatric psychiatrists across the state. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, only one county in Texas meets the standard of 47 psychiatrists per 100,000 children and adolescents, while 200 counties have none. Harris County has 154 child and adolescent psychiatrists for a population of 1.2 million children under the age of 18.

Walss-Bass has dedicated her career to answering the question of “why” diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and addiction occur.

“We know these are brain disorders; that they are caused by brain dysfunction. However, these changes happen at the cellular level,” Walss-Bass said. “They are subtle changes that we cannot see by MRI scans of patients.”

In the laboratory, Walss-Bass and her team are creating microscopic brain tissue cultures derived from peripheral cells obtained from consenting patients under the care of psychiatrists such as Newlin. These brain tissue cultures can be used to test how different medications and abused substances affect the cells. The eventual goal is to transfer that information back to treating physicians to help them develop a personalized treatment for a patient. They also hope it will allow them to identify patients at risk for mental health disorders and treat them early to avoid or mitigate the disease.

Thompson said research is the key to find treatable targets for mental illness as scientists look at the brain’s genetic, electrical, structural, cellular, and chemical structures.

“I don’t care how many school education bills we pass,” she said. “If we don’t have a healthy mind to learn, we’re whistling in the wind.”

Written by: Deborah Mann Lake
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