AUSTIN (KXAN) — The new Austin State Hospital, which promises to be more effective in treating people with severe mental health issues, should be finished next year. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission and Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin hosted a media tour of the facility Tuesday. 

The $304.6 million project was scheduled to be completed in September. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 winter freeze and supply chain disruptions, the project was delayed. The new building will be 375,000 square feet with 240 rooms, giving each patient their own room and bathroom.

“The original hospital was built in 1857. We are the oldest hospital on this side of the Mississippi. Mental health care has come a long way since then. This is the newest step and our newest evolution in terms of how we care for people that are moving through a recovery process,” Stacey Thompson, the superintendent of the Austin State Hospital, said.

“It involves this process of getting people prepared to leave rather than just medication management,” she continued. 

Construction of the facility took into account research on what has been shown to be effective in helping people recover from mental health disturbances, project officials said.

There will be lots of natural light, therapy rooms, classrooms, exercise rooms, an arts and crafts room and other therapy spaces throughout the facility. Patients will also have access to social interaction spaces, such as a cafe and a bank, designed to help them prepare for life outside of the facility, the project leaders said. 

Basketball and volleyball courts and walking trails will also be available to relieve stress and anxiety.

“[The new facility] will help people move out of the hospital with the skills they need for success. It moves us away from the traditional psychiatric model where medication management is a lot of what is offered It is still going to be a lot of what we offer, but we are going to offer all of these other things on top of it.”

The Austin State Hospital serves patients deemed by mental health practitioners as having severe mental health disorders. They come from forensic trials and civil cases, but Thompson said most patients in the Austin State Hospital are from forensic.

Does this hospital increase capacity?

The answer is sort of. While the new facility does not increase the number of beds, the number of counties this hospital will serve has decreased. 

That is because the Austin State Hospital is a part of a larger system of state hospitals the Texas Legislature has recently pumped funding into. The Austin State Hospital project is one of seven renovations. Houston recently opened up its state hospital, and Dallas has received funding for one, Austin State Hospital officials said. 

Following the addition of new state hospitals, the number of counties the Austin State Hospital serves has gone down from 38 counties to 26. 

“Did they take into account that it is the fastest-growing area in the country? We are going to run out of those beds in no time at all,” Krish Gundu of the Texas Jail Project said.

Gundu is skeptical that this new facility will be beneficial in helping people break the jail-to-mental health facility cycle and thinks the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding should have been allocated differently, such as creating more housing opportunities.

“I’m not sure how the model is going to help patients move on from the system,” she said. 

“Texas has allowed our jails to become the default for people with unmet, complex needs and behavioral health needs. We’ve flooded the wrong system. We should have been taking care of them through the state-funded public health mental system.” 

Gundu said with the amount of money that has gone to fund this new facility, there should have been more beds added to the hospital. Gundu said more resources should be given to post-discharge programs so people are less likely to get arrested again.

“For some of our community members who have continued to cycle through the systems, we should be more intentionally utilizing assisted outpatient treatment, so that clients and providers are held accountable to a treatment plan,” she said.

“I’m sure it’s a beautiful new hospital. I’m sure it is. But again, my question is, given the kind of crisis we are in the state, this is an unprecedented number of people sitting in our jails… Is this facility the right investment, where we added no new beds to one of the fastest-growing areas in the country?” 

Ongoing staffing shortages

Since the start of the pandemic, health care facilities around the country and in Texas have faced pronounced staffing shortages. 

“Things are turning around a little,” Thompson said. 

“It’s the same concern that it’s always been: we need to get where we need to be in terms of our staffing levels. I do think we are headed in the right direction,” she said.