Travis County considering new program to treat mentally ill who refuse treatment

FOX 7 Austin has covered multiple stories exposing gaps in mental health treatment for the homeless population. Now, we are taking a deeper look at what help is out there and what else needs to be done. 

Judge Guy Herman presides over mental health cases in Travis County court. 

“There's a crisis throughout this country about mental illness,” Herman said. 

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More than ten years ago, he helped create a hospital district to build mental health facilities in Travis County. 

“We were the only large metropolitan area in the country without having local beds,” said Herman.  

That's part of the reason the Herman Center was named after him. The facility bridges a gap for those in need of psychiatric care. 

“Law enforcement can admit a person to the Herman Center who is experiencing a mental health crisis, in lieu of arresting that person or taking them to the hospital,” said Laura Wilson-Slocum, practice administrator of crisis services and justice initiatives at Integral Care.  

The 16-bed center run by Integral Care is the only non-hospital facility in Travis County that can serve people on involuntary commitments. 

First responders or Integral Care crisis teams can admit people and have done so for more than 2,400 different people since the center opened. 

“Our capacity has been over 100 percent on average since we opened our doors two years ago,” Wilson-Slocum said.  

Integral Care said more than 80 percent of people who are homeless have a co-occurring disorder such as mental illness or substance use and many times those illnesses make it more difficult to help people get off the street. 

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Austin police officers with the Homeless Outreach Street Team try to identify possible mental health issues before a person even needs to be placed on an involuntary commitment.

“We have the ability to do some research, try to get them their medicine so that the crisis stops there. We can intervene before it gets to a point of going to jail or getting to the point where they have to go to a psychiatric hospital,” said Senior Officer Shelly Borton who works with APD’s HOST team.   

However, not everyone the HOST team encounters will accept their help. 

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“A lot of them decline help. Some people just aren't in a state of mind to even reach out or say, ‘Yes, I do want help.’ In their minds everything's okay and it's clearly not,” Borton said.  

Herman has an idea to help with that, too. 

“It's something called AOT, assisted or assertive outpatient treatment,” said Herman. 

AOT is a way to get services to those who refuse voluntary treatment by allowing courts to order certain individuals with mental illness or addiction to comply with treatment while living in the community. The court system would also be able to order the mental health system to provide that treatment, but first, the county needs to get a federal grant. 

Integral Care said if anyone sees someone who appears to be having a mental health or addiction crisis they can call the crisis hotline at 512-472-4357 to get that person help.

However, if the person having that crisis is a danger to themselves or others, police said you should instead call 9-1-1.