Vision for Austin psychiatric crisis center moving to reality

A long-awaited Austin facility for people suffering a mental health crisis is moving from the drawing board to an early April groundbreaking, with an opening planned for early next year, officials will announce Tuesday.

The Judge Guy Herman Center for Mental Health Crisis Care, at 6600 Ben White Blvd., will stabilize people in a calmer, more appropriate and less expensive environment than an emergency room, a psychiatric hospital or a jail. It is being named for a Travis County probate judge who has long advocated expanding mental health services.

Officials said in July 2014 that they hoped to open the center in 2015, but the process has taken longer than anticipated, said Ellen Richards, chief strategy officer for Austin Travis County Integral Care, the public mental health organization.

“We’ve been going through design changes so it meets the needs of consumers and families,” she said. “And in a boom town, getting a new building designed and built is time-consuming.”

Herman, who commits people to the Austin State Hospital, said he was honored by the naming and wasn’t concerned about the delay.

“It’s better to go slower and get it right rather than go faster and get it wrong,” he said, adding that the center will “absolutely” reduce the 3,400 state hospital commitments he makes each year.

Plans for services at the Herman Center also have evolved.

Its 42 employees will provide patients with holistic, integrated care, said Sherry Blyth, director of crisis services for Integral Care. That means not only will patients get intensive psychiatric services 24 hours a day, but those who need primary medical care or social services will be linked to that help, Blyth said. Patients will stay an average of three to five days and then go home or to a hospital if needed.

“We would have assured that they’re firmly established with ongoing care” for up to 90 days, she said.

Since 2005, such a center has been discussed among mental health officials, law enforcement officers and Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district. Almost two years ago, the St. David’s Foundation said it would provide an $8.9 million grant to Integral Care to build and operate the facility for two years. After that it will be self-sustaining.

“I’m just thrilled that it’s opening and it will be the first center of its kind” in Austin, said Earl Maxwell, the foundation’s CEO.

Construction of the 12,000-square-foot, 16-bed facility will cost $4.3 million, Richards said. It will be adjacent to Central Health’s Southeast Health and Wellness Center, and Central Health will lease the land for $1 a year.

Although psychiatric emergency services became available at University Medical Center Brackenridge two years ago, that ER can’t hold patients for days. It can put patients in restraints and seclusion, but that won’t be done at the Herman Center, officials said.

“For people in a psychiatric crisis, it reduces the feeling of being stigmatized for having needed emergency psychiatric care,” Blyth said. “We will be able to admit people directly from the community without them having to go to an emergency department.”

Retired educator Valerie Dodd Milburn of Austin, who is 55 and has bipolar disorder, said she welcomes the center. She experienced a crisis in the 1990s and was sent from the ER to a psychiatric hospital “not because I needed the environment but because it was the only place available,” she said.

“That situation still continues,” added Milburn, who chairs Communities for Recovery and is active with the Austin chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Officials expect the center to serve about 1,460 patients in the first year and 1,655 in the second year.

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