At the dedication of the St. Dymphna Center at the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Dripping Springs last February, Father Charlie Garza told parishioners the story of Christopher Rosilier, who had “set the tone” for the previous five years of his pastoral work.
“I had been here, I think, about three months and that was when I did my first funeral for someone who had a struggle with mental health," Garza said. "A young adult had taken his life."
Family and friends had told Garza that Rosilier hid his struggle with bipolar disorder. Garza, whose mother also has the disease, said that struck him.
He said speaking with his mother about her mental health challenges, as well as his own, helped the family cope.
"That was something that was very powerful for both of us,” he said.
The experience led him to advocate for the creation of the St. Dymphna Center, named for the patron saint of mental illness or disorders. The center provides a space for members of the community to get free counseling and access to resources – regardless of their faith.
Hays County is the fastest growing county in Texas and the second fastest in the country. Dripping Springs' population has more than doubled over the past 10 years.
According to a 2016 assessment by the Seton Family of Hospitals, however, the county is not seeing an increase in primary care physicians and mental health providers. In 2015, there were just 86 mental health providers for every 100,000 people – compared to a national average of 189.
Garza, who recently moved to St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in North Austin, said the consequences of the shortage were clear. While pastoring in Dripping Springs, he buried four young adults who killed themselves in the same month.
Since there aren't many professional mental health providers in the area, Garza said, some residents travel as far north as Cedar Park or the Austin area to get help. Others just can't afford treatment.
He became the de facto counselor for many in the church community, but he knew he couldn't do it alone.
The church partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Central Texas to provide training to volunteer counselors.
"So often it's the faith communities that are providing some of the social services needed" in rural areas, said Karen Ranus, executive director of NAMI Central Texas.
Her group educates folks to help them understand that these are health issues and nothing to be ashamed of.
"The earlier people get help, the much better their outcomes," she said.
There are more than 200 counties in Texas that don't have a single psychiatrist, Ranus said, so more communities are taking matters into their own hands.
"The beauty of what’s happening in Dripping Springs is it’s rooted [in a] grassroots movement,” she said. It's "in the dirt … and a little messy,” but there’s a commitment from residents.
Dripping Springs High School senior Trinity Wade is trying to begin a chapter of NAMI at her school. She says her sister's attempted suicide at the end of last year made her want to do more for her fellow students when it comes to mental health.
Trinity said her sister had been bullied, but she and her family weren’t aware of her state of mind the day the incident happened.
“We'd been looking to find my sister a therapist, but it's so hard," she said, adding that her family’s insurance didn’t cover the services they felt she needed.
Ranus says this would be the first time a high school has started a chapter in the area.
"Kids face the kinds of things that even 10 years ago, my own kids didn't face," she said. "And I think we have to create safe spaces for them to know how to navigate."
Dripping Springs ISD Superintendent Bruce Gearing says creating those safe spaces is part of a long-term plan. He says the district has seen an uptick in mental health cases, but it has been fortunate no student has taken his or her life.
Ultimately the district's goal is to put a licensed mental health counselor or social worker on every campus within the next 10 years. Gearing says the main focus will be removing barriers to mental health care access and getting parents resources.
"Our goal is to make sure that we're developing them academically, for sure, but at the same time that we're developing those social emotional skills to make sure that they can be positive contributors to the world,” he said.
Ranus says there's a "wonderful alignment" happening where communities are recognizing important work needs to be done to address mental health care.
"One of the things that I love about [Garza's] vision is that it comes from this understanding that you have to work collaboratively to make these things happen," she said. "So you've got Father Charlie with his faith communities stepping up."
Garza said he expects to bring his mental health work to his new church in Austin, but will continue to support the Dymphna Center when needed.
“God's been able to use me in these experiences to bring help and to shine a light in this area," he said, "and that to me is the grace of it all.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en Español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.