How Can We Fix Texas’ Mental Healthcare Crisis?

This blog post is co-authored by The Council on Recovery’s President & CEO Mel Taylor, MSW, and Executive Vice President Mary Beck, LMSW.

Substance use is a primary driver of readmission to the hospital and/or criminal justice systems.  If we addressed substance use disorders in conjunction with mental health disorders, the number of people in need of care would significantly decrease. Yet time and again, substance use is viewed as a secondary concern and not as a confounding disease affecting the majority of people with a mental health disorder.

As we read Alex Stuckey’s three-part series How Texas Fails the Mentally Ill, we were met with a mix of emotions. On the one hand, it is heartening to see a light being shined on this decades long travesty – a crisis that strips people of their dignity and basic human rights; that tells people they have to wait, homeless on the streets or in jail to get the care they desperately need. On the other hand, it is concerning to see the pronounced blind spot regarding co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders that exists among healthcare providers, behavioral health providers, policy makers, and the community at large.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, multiple national population surveys show that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa. And the coronavirus pandemic is only making matters worse. A recent study conducted by The Recovery Village asked 1,000 American adults about their use of drugs and alcohol in the past month, and 55 percent reported an increase in their alcohol consumption in the past month, with 18 percent reporting a significant increase. When asked what prompted their substance use, respondents cited stress, boredom, and an effort to cope with anxiety or depression.

At The Council on Recovery, we’ve watched this dynamic intensify over the past year, with more clients struggling with relapse, suicidal ideation, and overdose. So what can be done? First, we must acknowledge and embrace the fact that the mental health care system is in disarray, and if co-occurring substance use disorders continue to be discounted and dismissed, it is unlikely that outcomes will improve.

Beyond that, we know that we cannot overcome this crisis if fragmented policies and underfunding continues. Texas needs a comprehensive analysis and long-range plan for the entire system, led by behavioral health experts who equally represent substance use and mental health disorders. The plan must study leading-edge best practices for the treatment of co-occurring disorders. Most importantly, it must identify multiple financing options that incentivize public and private providers – as well as payers – to participate in the plan and to provide best practice care.

Last fall, The Council on Recovery launched The Center for Co-Occurring Disorders as just such an initiative.

This multi-partner Center will explore and document current best practices, conduct evaluation on models of care, and identify and advocate for financing options. Led by The Council, other partners include The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD, Harris County Psychiatric Center, Baylor College of Medicine and Harris Health, as well as a psychiatrist in private practice and community members with lived experience.

Over the last 75 years, The Council has witnessed the changes in the landscape of behavioral health care unfold in real time, along with the devastating consequences. In the wake of the pandemic, the oncoming tidal wave of mental health and substance use disorders will undoubtedly inflict even more suffering on the individuals trapped within our broken system.

But we can turn the tide.

Initiatives like The Center for Co-Occurring Disorders can help to educate the public, policy makers, and behavioral health professionals about the crisis in our mental health system. Together we can advocate for legislative priorities that support these efforts. Because doing nothing is not an option.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use or a co-occurring mental health disorder, contact The Council today. We offer telehealth services to all who need it, regardless of their ability to pay.

A Special Announcement From President & CEO Mel Taylor

Dear Friends,   

I wish to inform you of my intention to retire as President and CEO with The Council, effective August 31, 2021. Although this retirement will be effective in August, I have been asked to remain in an “emeritus” position working for the Foundation for the next three years to ensure a smooth transition, assist in planned giving, and aid with institutional memory.  A search process to identify my replacement is underway, capably led by our Board Chair, Dean Quinn, along with the help of outside counsel. I’m excited to be handing the baton over whenever that person is chosen and will support them in any way I can.   

In my 28 years as President and CEO, much has changed, and as I reflect on my time with The Council, I am filled with awe and gratitude. In August 1993, I went to work for The Council at a most difficult time. We had a deficit of $93,000, almost no available cash reserves and were nearly 90% financed by state and federal grants. Less than 1% of the Houston community had ever heard of “The Houston Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.” We had a Foundation in name only. But, we had the passion, vision and dedication of a few willing board members, a couple of 3 x 5 index cards of donors and a powerful, if not resilient, intention to prove that, as someone said, “We really can raise money for drunks!” 

Today, we are operating with a balanced portfolio between public and private funds. We have established the organization as one of the best — in culture, in meeting mission, and in esteem by the community we serve. We have established Foundation reserves to help ensure the Council’s operation for years to come, secured a stable annual operating budget, and continuously serve more than 65,000 people each year!   

During this 28 year period, we have helped a lot of people – those we can tell of, and many who were helped that we will never know. We have seen miracles of recovery many times over, and we have experienced the deep loss that comes when addiction is not faced head on. I am profoundly grateful to you and our many friends and partners who shared in our passion and helped to grow and sustain our mission. My greatest gift has been to experience so much passion and dedication by an incredible staff, board, and community who serve a purpose greater than themselves and have given back to service in untold ways. 

Through it all, it has been my honor to help lead this organization through fires, mergers, and pandemics, building new programs and responding to changes in our community. Each day of those 28 years I have never tired or desired to be elsewhere, looking forward to coming to work and to the opportunities we have been given.  

As we look to the light at the end of the tunnel of these past twelve months and ahead to our 75th anniversary, The Council is well positioned for the future. We have launched our Center for Co-Occurring Disorders, completed a successful reserve fund campaign, secured grants and contracts for the next several years, and have a strong and devoted leadership team and board of trustees.  

And so, the time is now for me to step aside and make room for the next person to assume leadership as I retire from daily service to The Council. Until then, we continue to serve those that need us, now and in the future – vowing never to turn anyone away.  

Yours in gratitude and recovery, 

Mel

For The Council’s official press release detailing Mel’s career and legacy, click here.

Helping Families Find North: A Speaker Series for the Age of COVID-19

This blog post is contributed by Mel Taylor, MSW, President & CEO of The Council on Recovery

The Council on Recovery, like many of Houston’s essential nonprofits, has had to re-imagine how we operate as a result of COVID-19. That includes taking the time re-examine our fundraising efforts, as we shift from live to virtual events. While there have been many questions and uncertainties, we have taken the opportunity to look at what is and isn’t working, what we can do to increase interest in the work of The Council, and how we can promote greater understanding of addiction and co-occurring mental health issues.

For 36 years, The Council’s Luncheon Speaker Series has been our major fundraiser and friend-raiser, through which we have touched thousands of lives and raised thousands of vital dollars, allowing us to honor our pledge to turn no one away. The new COVID landscape has challenged this effort, so we went to work, boldly asking: what would we like to see in a new event as part of the Speaker Series? How can we increase our outreach? And how can we reach an even larger virtual audience that needs to hear our message?

The result was a painstaking examination of what The Council is and always has been in the face of crisis: leading, steady, reliable, and always here to help people find their way back to recovery from behavioral health disorders. Indeed, it is at the core of The Council’s mission to help anyone with an alcohol, drug or related issue.

We spent many hours re-thinking and re-imagining what was required to create a virtual event that would capture enthusiasm, create curiosity and educate the community. Now, we are proud to present a new look and new brand for the speaker series: Finding North. The concept of Finding North speaks to the heart of who The Council is: a trusted Houston institution, always here to help families find their way.

We remain most grateful to The Waggoners Foundation for their continued support in presenting the Speaker Series. With our new look and new ideas, we hope to increase those who can be helped from our efforts in honoring the life and memory of Jay Waggoner who died from alcoholism. Together with your help, we can help even more families find north out of the maze of addiction. We hope to “see” you on November as we introduce Finding North with our fabulous speaker Sugar Ray Leonard.

To learn more about our Speaker Series, or to become a sponsor for our first Finding North event, click here.

We’ve Been There: The Role of the Family

This September is Recovery Month, and to celebrate we are sharing inspiring stories from our incredible staff members in recovery. For decades, The Council on Recovery and its Center for Recovering Families have approached addiction as a family disease. Each family member of someone struggling with addiction faces pain, fear and uncertainty throughout their loved one’s recovery journey. That’s why we focus on treating not only the individual, but the entire family as well. In this entry, one staff member recounts how the support and participation of her family was key to her recovery…

I knew I needed help for many years. For the most part, it had been 16 years since I had gone without drinking to inebriation and/or blackout on a daily basis, with only a few exceptions. I tried many times to stop drinking on my own, but always failed. In the fall of 2013, I began to realize that people could smell the alcohol on me, even if I hadn’t had anything to drink that day. Basically, my body was not metabolizing alcohol like it once had. I was drinking a quarter to a half gallon of alcohol a day, easily. I was miserable and exhausted, physically and mentally. In efforts to avoid smelling like alcohol, I started running/walking five to 10 miles a day and drank gallons upon gallons of water each day. I was doing everything humanly possible in order to flush the alcohol out of my system before going to work each morning.

I had stopped sleeping because I was in a constant state of severe anxiety, and my muscles were just wracked with involuntarily spasms anytime the alcohol levels in my body got below a certain level. My body just would not let me sleep, anymore. I had just turned 40 and I was convinced I would not be alive to see 41. December rolled around and I was convinced that I needed to make a decision – I needed to either end my life or pick myself up. I decided to pick myself up and I entered treatment on December 27, 2013.

The night I told my husband, “I need to go to treatment tomorrow,” he poured every ounce of alcohol we had in our house down the sink.

My husband has been the most important person in my recovery. In substance use prevention, the family can serve as a risk factor or a protective factor for substance use. The role of the family in relapse prevention is very similar. Not only has my husband been my biggest cheerleader in my recovery, but he has participated in recovery right alongside me for almost seven years, now. I have been fortunate in that my husband put me and my recovery first, and by doing that, he was able to learn how to put himself first, too. The night I told my husband, “I need to go to treatment tomorrow,” he poured every ounce of alcohol we had in our house down the sink. He came to aftercare with me every single Saturday for that first year. He became a member of Al-Anon and attended his meetings once a week – they used to call him ‘Wise Wes’ in group. However, his commitment did not end there.

Here we are, almost seven years later, and he has not had a drop of alcohol since that night in December of 2013. I never expected him to abstain. After all, it was my problem, not his. But something changed in both of us and not just in me. We were both dedicated to being healthy and sane for ourselves and for each other. For me, that meant putting an end to my drinking. For him, that meant gaining control of his health by learning how to eat right and exercise, resulting in a 120 lb. weight loss for him. Every celebration, every vacation, every time we eat out with friends and family, there we are – present and together.

We’ve Been There: Facing the Fear of Change

This blog post is the third in a series especially for Recovery Month, highlighting our staff members and their journey to recovery. The Council knows the road to recovery is not an easy one – and that journey is made all the more difficult when shame, stigma, and judgment get in the way. At The Council, we’ve been there. That’s why our team is committed to providing compassionate care, free of judgment and full of support.

My recovery journey began when the woman who would later be my supervisor walked into Plane State Jail and gave me the hope and courage to face the fear of change. My recovery coach, Cynthia Branch worked with me for three months preparing me for re-entry into citizenship. Then upon my release, she connected me with stage appropriate resources to help me build my recovery capital so I could enjoy and sustain long term recovery.

After two years of recovery, Cynthia trained me to be a recovery coach and I worked side by side with her, going into the prison and the very dorm I had been incarcerated in. She role-modeled recovery first, then recovery coaching. Now I am uniquely qualified to help others initiate and sustain long term recovery.

We’ve Been There: The Path to Recovery

This September is Recovery Month, and in recognition, we are sharing inspiring stories of recovery from our staff members. At The Council, we know there are many paths to recovery, and that each individual’s journey to recovery must be their own. Whether you follow a 12-step based approach, a spiritual or faith-based approach, SMART Recovery, or something else altogether – we seek to empower our clients to follow the path that works best for them. For the third entry in our series, we share the voice of one of our valued team members, who shares her personal path to recovery and how her faith has informed that journey.

My recovery began in January 1982, the moment I stepped onto a plane headed for Houston. My uncle met me at the airport, took me in, and helped me detox off opiates. I was referred by the Texas Research Institute for Mental Sciences (TRIMS) to attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) group at noon on Saturdays. My sobriety date is January 31, 1982 and I have been clean ever since.

There is no one thing or person who has been most important in my recovery. I do know that God directed me to Narcotics Anonymous, the Steps and people who shared wisdom, friendship, and unconditional love. My recovery is evolving every day, all the time.  I often say I grew up in Narcotics Anonymous and The Council. I am 38 years sober, 37 years at The Council, 26 years married, and a mother to a 25-year-old. I continue to evolve in my love of my faith, family, friends, knowledge and giving what I have back to others.

I love recovery! Recovery has given me the opportunity to love myself, display love to others, and practice human humility. It allows me to return to what I was always meant to be – someone who lives life fully without the use or dependence on drugs, and someone who learns and practices intimacy, partakes in community and loves God’s kingdom.