Reporter’s work on mental health in Texas is powerful, and personal

This was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle’s HouWeAre newsletter about race, culture and identity. You can sign up here.

After the coronavirus pandemic spurred shutdowns in 2020 and disrupted our everyday lives, mental health took center stage as experts, counselors, apps and athletes advised and encouraged awareness, self-care and treatment amid a definitive rise in anxiety, stress and grief churning in a perpetual cycle of fear and isolation.

But for many who struggle with mental health challenges, illness and impairment, the battles are ongoing and many — and, particularly in Texas, often go unmitigated, with crucial needs unmet and interventional resources scarce.

Alex Stuckey, a member of the Houston Chronicle’s investigative team, has spent the last few years tackling these all-too-common narratives on the consequences when people who need and/or seek help fall through the cracks: homelessness, hopelessness and even death.

And, so often, the indiscriminate neglect and dead-ends start young, afflicting our most vulnerable populations.

Stuckey’s latest project, “In Crisis,” investigates how Texas treats mentally ill children and adults, reaching beyond the statistics and data to delve into the minds, hearts and lives of the affected and afflicted. The stories are intimate, frustrating and often heart-breaking and, as the mother of an autistic child, often hit close to home for me.

As of late, Stuckey’s work has been busy making its rounds on the journalism awards and nominations circuits — most recently earning Star Reporter of the Year honors — and I’m thrilled she made time for our HouWeAre readers.


Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: I am an investigative reporter for the Chronicle. I grew up in Ohio, but have lived all over the country since graduating college in 2012 – Arizona, Idaho, Missouri, Utah and now Texas. I came to the Chronicle to cover NASA, science and the environment in 2017 after winning a Pulitzer (for my work on a project examining the rampant mishandling of sexual assault reports at Utah colleges) while working at the Salt Lake Tribune.

Q: Your work over the past three years has centered around mental health, mental illness and cognitive/development impairments and the breakdowns in Texas’ system. What are some common themes that you’ve found in your reporting when it comes to victims’ and families’ struggles?
A: As someone who struggles with anxiety and PTSD, mental health is an incredibly important topic to me. I know what it’s like to be unable to access mental health care, be it because of cost or long waitlists. In Texas, I’ve found that this is something residents struggle with as well.

A lack of adequate community mental health programs means that people find themselves reaching crisis levels and in need of inpatient care. But because so many people need inpatient care, there is a long waitlist for beds at publicly funded psychiatric hospitals. That means that severely mentally ill Texans find themselves on the streets, interacting with law enforcement and cycling through the criminal justice system over and over again.

My colleague, Stephanie Lamm, and I recently found that this problem can be traced all the way back to K-12 public school districts: Not a single school district in Texas has the adequate number of all four professionally recommended mental health providers: counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers.

Q: Did your own experience with mental health challenges draw you to this investigative series from covering NASA and science? What drew you back to investigative reporting?

A: I had a very, very hard time as a rape survivor in Salt Lake City when I was writing about sexual assault every single day for a year and a half (which I wrote about in a personal essay for the Houston Chronicle). I desperately needed a break from trauma reporting so when I was offered the job covering NASA at the Chronicle in 2017, I jumped at the opportunity to recharge and do something that was fun and not so triggering for me.
Those two years covering NASA and science really helped me heal from that difficult reporting and gave me an opportunity to focus on my mental health, which is why I felt like I was ready to do the difficult reporting again back when I joined the I-Team in 2019. My mental health journey, and that of previous significant others, really drew me to writing about this topic.

Q: Texas ranks pretty low in mental health care and resources for the mentally ill and impaired. Where have you found glimmers of hope?

A: It can be hard not to feel downtrodden when reporting on this topic, but one glimmer of hope Stephanie and I found was a school district 30 minutes south of the Oklahoma-Texas border, Sanger ISD. Though Sanger ISD doesn’t have all the professionally recommended ratios of though four positions, they have taken an approach to mental health care in schools that is honestly inspiring.

It gave me hope that Texas can make changes to help its residents.

Q: Though our role as journalists is to try to be as objective as possible, I’ve always found that we often run across a person or incident that really sticks with us. Was there a moment or subject/interviewee that has really stuck with you or affected how you approached your storytelling?

A: I’ve written a lot of stories that have stuck with me over the course of my career, but none of stuck with me quite like those of Stetson Hoskins and Fred Harris. Both Hoskins and Harris were young men with severe mental illness. Both had families who tried to get them help – and both sought help on their own. But Texas’ systems absolutely squashed them.

Conducting those interviews with their families, who felt they had done everything they could, was absolutely haunting.


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