Local community members, elected officials and health care professionals gathered Friday at the Wright Campus Center at Austin College to discuss mental health care needs in the community. The Dr. Don Rodgers Memorial Community Behavioral Health Conference welcomed more than 200 people for discussions about the availability and limitations of services for those facing mental health issues in the community.

“We were very pleased — it really was an overwhelming response,” organizer Gait Utter said. “We were hoping to get 100 people here … but we did get 260 who actually registered and then we started a waiting list.”

She said organizers had to make some last minute changes about layout and different things but it was all worth it to allow as many people as possible to be involved. Utter said she thinks the interest in the conference, “just speaks to the need and the desire to come together and to talk about these issues and to talk about how we deliver better solutions (to the problems of mental illness).”

She said she is really excited about the conference as a first step to the hard work still to come in breaking down the stigma attached to mental health issues.

The conference featured two panel discussions in which local law enforcement, judges, district attorneys and health care providers were asked about the state of resources for those with mental illness. While everyone had a different take on the situation based on the way their particular field interacts with those who have mental health issues, there were some similarities.

Everyone agreed there aren’t enough local resources being placed toward the problem and everyone agreed that one thing needed to cure that deficiency is more money. During the panel discussion, Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt said he once had to help someone navigate the path to getting treatment for a mental health issue and he really struggled even though he considers himself someone who is aware of most of the local resources.

All who spoke agreed that the stigma attached to mental illness makes it even harder for people to come forward and ask for help. Everyone also agreed that it is imperative that the help be available and readily accessible once a person finds the courage to ask for it. What people can’t agree upon is how to pay for it. The money from the state isn’t, at least to this point, coming to Grayson County said Texoma Community Center Executive Director Daniel Thompson. He said that TCC gets the third least amount of funding of any community center in the state and that is up from last just a short while ago.

Another shortage discussed at the conference was the number of mental health practitioners in the area and the number of beds for those whose mental health issues require hospitalization. Those people who lack insurance are really hard, the panel said, to place in treatment beds. While no one had specific answers on how to increase the numbers of beds, funds or doctors, Utter said those are some of the things that will be taken up in the next step in the process.

She said NEWCO is working with Texoma Health Foundation, the Medow’s OK to Say campaign, Austin College, Grayson College, Connect the Dots and Making Dreams Real to form a Behavioral Health Leadership Team to help area leaders find those solutions.

“We will have 30 community leaders at the meeting every month,” Utter said. “And every other month, we are going to have some subgroups talking about five or six issues that are predefined by the community group to say this is what we need to work on: housing, veterans, treatment personnel, all of those issues.”

Utter said the groups will be multidisciplinary and will develop solutions to those issues. She said that many of the people who were part of the conference have been doing good work in separate spheres, but several people had told her during the breaks that they had heard things at the conference they had not heard before and met people that they had only heard about or talked to on the phone. Utter said those people often didn’t know enough about each other to be good resources for each other when it comes to helping move the mental health agenda forward in this community. Getting to know one another and hear about the problem from another person’s perspective, Utter said, was part of the goal for the conference.

The conference was dedicated to Dr. Rodgers, who died in November, because it was just the sort of thing he would have loved to take part in. In fact, he was one of the people planning the meeting before his death.

Speakers for the event were Tommy Nelson, senior pastor of the Denton Bible Church, and Eric Nadel, lead voice on the Texas Rangers radio broadcast. Nelson told the story of his recovery from a burnout that left him physically and mentally exhausted to the point that he had to seek both physical and mental health intervention. Nelson said battling a mental illness doesn’t mean one can’t be productive and successful. In fact, he said, many Americans suffer from mental illness because they are so productive and successful that they never give themselves a chance to properly rest and restore their bodies either physically or mentally. He said he found out the hard way that one can burnout even if one loves what one is doing.

Nadel talked about losing his friend Rusty Rose to that man’s long fought battle with depression. Nadel said he was surprised that the suicide death of such a prominent person didn’t bring about more of a clamor to help those battling with depression so he got involved with movement to destigmatize mental health issues.