New Austin State Hospital takes shape with new features for treatment

The exterior of the new Austin State Hospital is up. At more than 380,000 square feet it’s impressive, like it’s a $305 million price.  

On a tour, hospital administrators and project managers said it’s what’s inside that they believe will bring about meaningful change.

"It moves us away from that that traditional psychiatric model, where medication management is a lot of what's offered," said Hospital Superintendent Stacey Thompson.

Patients have private rooms, instead of dorms with multiple beds. Safety features include shatterproof glass and removal door jams to prevent barricades. Workers also close up walls that will be rooms for therapy, classes and exercise. 

The site includes nearly a dozen courtyards providing spots to relieve stress and anxiety. The rebuild is part of a partnership with the Texas Health and Human Services department and Dell Medical Center. 

Sydney Harris, Dell Medical School’s Director of Mental Healthcare Redesign, said she attended several meetings, of more than 100 community stakeholders, working on design plans.

"We're expanding the care, and we're creating more efficiencies throughout," said Harris.

The hospital, on average, serves 672 people each year. Capacity remains at 240 beds, but the site is expected to help more people in Central Texas because of other statewide renovations.

"Just recently with the Dunn Center opening in Houston, Ash went from 38 counties of serving down to 26. And so that's roughly about 37% decrease in the population that the Austin State Hospital will be serving," said Harris.

An area called the Downtown, represents one of the biggest changes in design and treatment.

"This is really groundbreaking for us in terms of our ability to provide people those extra skills that they need as they're leaving the hospital. You know, our attempt is to try to reduce recidivism and give people the tools that they need to be successful when they leave," said Thompson.

Patients work on social interaction skills like banking and even going to a salon. It's a design team favorite because of what it may do.

"There's a sense of pride when you get to that sense of independence, and you're ready to go be repatriated into society. So I'm looking forward to seeing how that reacts," said Project Director Brian Roeder.

Some of the older buildings on campus will be torn down. But others will stay like the original hospital, which dates back to the 1860s. Old Main could become a museum, while others are repurposed.

"There's one that we're going to use as overflow and contingency for the new hospital. We have one residential building that that houses a lot. We have not landed on a plan for that yet. However, there are a lot of discussions happening about what the need is, and there's a lot of need for psychiatric nursing care. There's a lot of need for residential stepdown. We would like to see if there are community partners that would like to run their programs out of those buildings," said Thompson.

That change may not begin until after the new hospital site opens in 2024.