Local law enforcement officials health care representatives, and other community members from across the region came together Friday to discuss area needs for mental health services at the Community Behavioral Health Conference. The event, now in its second year, featured discussions on topics ranging from access to mental health care to jail diversion.

The event was felt held in 2017 at Austin College and was organized by NEWCO, a consortium of nonprofits and other stakeholders focused on mental health and homelessness in Texoma.

“Really, our goal is to raise awareness of mental health concerns and reduce the sigma around them,” NEWCO Co-founder Gail Utter said Friday.

As a part of the event, organizers included panels with experts on topics ranging from jail diversion and minimization to access to care. As an example of the mental health need and impact in the area, Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt said he uses two incarcerated individuals as an example.

One these two individuals has spent nearly 1,200 days over the past five years in local jail awaiting trial. As the individual has been deemed unfit for trial, they will be sent to the state hospital until they are found to be fit. At that time they are returned to Grayson, but the trials take too long to schedule the trial and they fall back into poor mental health, restarting the cycle. In total, Watt said it has cost taxpayers $110,000 to house these two inmates.

Through the events and conversations on the topic, Utter said she hopes to remove the veil and fears that surround the topic. She said that many of those suffering from mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, will fear judgment or ridicule if their conditions are public, which keeps some from seeking treatment.

In recent years, the stigma around mental health issues has eased to some degree thanks, in part, to the growth of the internet that has allowed people to talk with others who share experiences. With the increases in connectivity, Utter said it is easier and more common for people to share the challenges that they face.

For this year's event, Utter said organizers included a segment entitled, “Our Own Backyard” to give local voices a chance to share their personal stories about mental health issues and the impact that it is had on their lives. These stories ranged from growing up with autism to substance abuse and anxiety.

Through this, Utter said she wanted to give a human face to the topic. By being able to put a name and a face to the topic of mental health, Utter said advocates and those suffering may be able to breach the topic, start a dialogue and ease the stigma.

“When it is your neighbor, and they are willing to speak out about their experiences, it does sink in and make a difference,” she said.