Travis County analyzes mental health care in area to pinpoint gaps

Travis County, Texas (KXAN) – Travis County leaders are addressing next steps in addressing mental health transformation programs in Central Texas. The goal is to help prevent people with a mental health crisis from entering the criminal justice system and instead, to provide personalized treatment.

The next step in the roadmap to help address the problem in Travis County is taking place at the University of Texas at Dell College of Medicine in Austin. Steve Strakowski, MD, works to lead the charge in helping to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the care available in the community and then where the gaps are.

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

Over the past six years, his team has worked with the state to redesign the hospital on the campus of Austin State Hospital to try and solve the intersection of criminal justice and mental health.

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

“It could include the building where people are being sent, rather than being tracked into the criminal justice system,” Strakowski said. “There are parts that can be done with outpatient support both from the clinical side and from the legal side. There are things that may happen in prison, just from a safety perspective, but they may need different types of clinical support.”

Experts say when working to expand mental health programs, the focus should not be solely on developing a larger facility.

If you have a 100-bed hospital, and everyone stays there for six months, you treat 200 people a year. And Strakowski explained that if you have a 100-bed hospital, but you have other sources so that people only stay three months, you suddenly treat 400 people a year. “This is how we need Texans to start thinking. Bigger and bigger warehouses are not the answer. The solution is facilities that are better designed for specific purposes, and then build input-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 for the state to speed up and provide more funding to help with these efforts.

“It is appalling that the state is allowed to shirk its responsibilities and then blame cities and counties for not caring about it,” Shea said.

When stakeholders do their analysis to find how best to provide support to people with mental health needs, they will seek as much community involvement as possible.

“We designed it to be a 10-month process, once we get everything going, to come up with a plan based on an investment of between $30 million and $50 million,” Strakowski said. “What we hope to do is identify some quick wins that we can implement in a year or months. And then the bigger years will be three to five years.”

The Sobering Center was under consideration as an option to help expand what the county calls mental health referral services. The center is currently a safe place for intoxicated individuals to go – as an alternative to an emergency room or prison. Over the past few months, researchers have been evaluating how to implement a pilot program that would send people accused of criminal trespassing to the center rather than to prison as well. But the study’s findings raised concerns about the location and about providing for these people’s long-term needs – such as permanent housing, employment, and addiction treatment on a large scale.

“Do we shift them to a place where they can get services and stability, or do we shift them to a place where they get minimum resources for 30 days and then put the spit back into the same cycle,” Commissioner Jeff Travelion said.

Leave a Comment