ELGIN, Texas — “This is me in the depths of the days I didn’t think I’d make it out of,” Slade Skaggs said.

Now six and a half years clean, Austin native Skaggs is giving back the hope he spent two decades chasing.

“That’s what I’m meant to do, is use my darkest past as my greatest asset and lean into the heart,” he said.

As recovery program coordinator at Communities for Recovery, the 45-year-old is facing one of Texas’ greatest challenges head on: A raging mental health crisis.

A sobering statistic, the CDC estimates 5,000 Texans lost their lives to drug overdoses from July 2021 to July 2022. (Spectrum News 1/Dylan Scott)

“People are out there dying for a new experience in order to heal some suffering,” Skaggs said. “It’s different today what’s out there for people to use and escape.”

In Texas alone, those numbers are staggering. From July 2021 to July 2022, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 5,000 Texans lost their lives to drug overdoses. To add to the growing concern is a recent state-funded report noting suicides have increased by more than 35% since 2000.

“They can’t live up to what society tells them to be, so obviously there’s trauma,” Skaggs said.

William M. Tierney, associate dean for Population Health & Health Outcomes at Indiana University as well as a professor at UT’s Dell Medical School, says this is a critical moment in combating an alarming issue.

“It’s a mental health crisis leading to an opioid crisis which is leading to a drop in life expectancy,” Tierney said.

Associate dean and professor William M. Tierney believes a growing mental health crisis among younger populations has led to the first consecutive life expectancy drop in the United States in nearly 100 years. (Spectrum News 1/Dylan Scott)

“There’s so much that can be done, but we have to admit we have a problem and attack it,” Tierney said. “There’s a mental health issue leading to physical demise.”

It took 25 years for Skaggs to find the peace and self-worth he longed for; his worry is that is time Texans simply don’t have.

“You’re a human being worth loving, whether you know it or not,” Skaggs said. “If you don’t believe this, talk to someone that does.”