Imagine being able to see where mental health care resources are available in Central Texas by using a dashboard, much like the COVID-19 dashboards we’ve used in the past two years to see how this pandemic has progressed.
Then imagine being able to look at the dashboard map and see where there are gaps in care. And imagine hospitals, nonprofits and government agencies being able to tailor where they add mental health services based on an area’s needs.
That’s the concept being developed by the just launched Central Texas Community Mental Health Surveillance Collaborative. It is being funded by a $2 million allocation in the federal appropriations bill signed into law this month.
The collaborative will take existing public health data and put it on a map to be able to see where there are resources, where there are not enough or none, and where there are particularly vulnerable populations based on social determinates of health — such as access to transportation, employment and housing.
“A mental health map of Central Texas should be a useful tool for public health planners, school counselors and veterans’ assistance groups,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who helped secure the money for the project as part his limited requests for community projects. “It can help to match needs of neighbors from certain areas, age groups, and other factors with available resources for help in times of crisis or challenge.”
Melinda Villagran, executive director of Texas State University’s Translational Health Research Center, will lead the project.
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“We saw the mental health need during the pandemic,” Villagran said. “We need to understand what is happening. Where do we need to match the research with resources?”
The data the dashboard will pull is readily available, but it is massive and not aggregated in one location, Villagran said. She’ll use community partners to help her team determine which data would be most helpful to make more accessible as well as map that data by census tract location.
While one data set such as number of hospital admissions might not point to a mental health need in that community, the combination of multiple data sets will provide a clearer picture. Some things they could look at include what areas have more people at high risk of mental health needs such as veterans, students, postpartum women, people affected by COVID-19 and people affected by job loss.
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“There are a lot of factors that could go into it,” Villagran said. “By overlapping them, we might find the places where things pile up. We’re not just looking at typical stuff. We’re looking at things more broadly and not jumping to conclusions.”
On the other end, the dashboard will identify areas where mental health clinicians and nonprofits are working and help connect people to them.
“This will help mental health providers to get ahead of the resources,” Villagran said. “They are really busy. They are overrun with clients right now. They need a tool that is easy to use.”
The funding will allow Villagran to hire three data science investigators — a computer scientist, a psychologist and a health administrator — as well as a Geographic Information System expert to create the map and a community resource expert to create a directory of services for each area of the map.
The funding also will help pay for the time of the community partners who will help the collaborative focus on which data is most helpful when mapping mental health care needs.
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The collaborative has begun working with Austin Public Health, Community Action of Central Texas, the Texas Healthcare & Biosciences Institute, Hill Country Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Centers, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Austin Chambers of Commerce, Comal County Commissioner Donna Eccleston and Hays County Public Health.
Austin Public Health is a key collaborator because it provides an open data portal with a lot of de-identified information (information that is about population, not person-specific). Not all areas of Central Texas have that amount of data. The project also could identify what areas still need to be researched and which data is missing and needs to be collected.
This could influence where mental health services are added. Villagran envisions hospital administrators, nonprofit groups, mental health centers and government agencies using the dashboard to determine where to expand services.
“Service deserts are a problem, and they’re hard to pinpoint until something happens that points to a place lacking services,” she said.
Though it will take two or three years to put the dashboard together, Villagran said the collaborative could become a model for other communities.
“There’s not really any models like this,” she said.