Travis County analyzes mental health care in area to pinpoint gaps

Travis County

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Travis County leaders are tackling the next steps in addressing mental health diversion programs in Central Texas. The goal is to help keep people experiencing a mental health crisis from landing in the criminal justice system and instead, provide customized treatment.

The next step in the roadmap to help address the problem in Travis County is happening at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School. Steve Strakowski, M.D., is working to lead the charge in helping to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the care available in the community and then find where the gaps are.

“The challenge we’re working on in Travis County is, unfortunately, people with mental illness intersect with the criminal justice system frequently,” Strakowski explained.

The last six years, his team has been working with the state to redesign the the hospital on the Austin State Hospital’s campus to try to solve the criminal justice-mental health intersection.

He is also working with Travis County Commissioner’s Court, which will help fund the analysis of current care in the community to help identify and develop better support services. That analysis could result in a more than $30 million plan to invest in things like outpatient support, including clinical and legal services.

“It could include a building where people get sent to, instead of getting tracked into the criminal justice system,” said Strakowski. “There’s pieces that can be done with outpatient support from the clinical side and the legal side. There’s pieces that may have to happen in jail, just from a safety perspective, but might need different kinds of clinical support.”

Experts say when working to expand mental health programs, the focus shouldn’t just be on developing a larger facility.

“If you had a 100-bed hospital, and everybody stays there six months, you treat 200 people a year. If you have a 100 bed hospital, but you have other sources so that people only stay three months, suddenly you treat 400 people a year,” Strakowski explained. “That’s how we need Texas to start thinking. Bigger and bigger warehouses are not the solution. The solution is better designed facilities for specific purposes, and then building the input and output support so that people are in the right place for the level of care they need and for the legal support they need.”

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea is calling on the state to step up and provide more funding to help in these efforts.

“It’s appalling the state has been allowed to shirk its responsibilities and then blame cities and counties for not taking care of it,” Shea said.

When stakeholders do their analysis on finding ways to best support those with mental health needs, they will solicit as much community engagement as they can.

“We’ve designed it to be a 10 month process, once we get everything going, to come up with a plan based on a $30 to $50 million investment,” said Strakowski. “What we’re hoping to do is identify some quick wins that we could implement in a year or months. And then the larger ones are going to be three to five years.”

The Sobering Center was under consideration as an option to help expand what the county called mental health diversion services. The Center is currently safe place for publicly intoxicated individuals to go — as an alternative to the emergency room or jail. For the past few months, researchers were evaluating how to implement a pilot program that would divert people charged with Criminal Trespassing to the Center instead of jail, as well. But the study results raised concerns about the location and about providing for these peoples’ long-term needs — like permanent housing, employment, and full-scale addiction treatment.

“Are we diverting them to a place where they can get services and stability, or are we diverting them to a place where they get minimal resources for 30 days and then get spit right back into the same cycle,” said Commissioner Jeff Travillion.

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