Who’s Fixing the Mental Health Gap in Central Texas?

Four hundred people a month. That’s how many mental health patients in crisis are being diverted away from qualified healthcare providers and towards ill-equipped emergency rooms and overburdened long-term care facilities in Austin, Texas, and surrounding Travis County. There just isn’t a service to meet the need, and as a result, many problems are getting worse. "This has been historically a big gap in our community mental health safety net," said Kim McPherson with the St. David's Foundation.

To meet that need, the Austin-based St. David’s Foundation, which is a joint owner of St. David’s Healthcare, just punted an enormous $8.9 million gift to Austin County Integral Care, to support the construction of a sort of mental health emergency room, a specialized facility where people in crisis can get the support they need to calm down quickly and efficiently.

It’s smaller than you’d expect. The center, which is slated to open in 2015, will have just 16 beds. If that doesn’t sound like enough to meet the needs of a busy metropolitan center like Austin, TX, keep in mind that patients’ stay in the facility will be capped at 48 hours. And that’s all it takes, for most mental health crisis cases to resolve: a warm place to sleep, good food, good meds, and a competent evaluation. With this new center online, the Travis County area will be able to administer to up to 240 people each month: not enough to quite close the gap, but certainly a good start.

Mental health giving is an interesting beast. Sometimes, all is quiet, and you get the feeling that not a lot of foundations out there are paying attention. But lately, news of new mental health grants has been raining down on the IP offices, and so much of it seems to have a similar mission: filling that frustrating gap that mental health patients so often fall into, between an emergency room that can’t really meet their needs, and a long-term care facility that’s likely overkill for what may be just a day-long manic episode.

Remember this grant, from early July, which will expand online help for mental health needs? It’s a pretty different approach to providing more specialized care for mental health patients than this one, to be sure, but it still resonates. More funders seem to be waking up to the huge gaps in our mental health system, and they're trying to fill those gaps in a wide variety of ways.