Partnership rethinks how we treat mental health issues in Travis

  • David Evans and Steve Strakowski
  • Special to the American-Statesman
1:30 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 Opinion
Dr. C. Martin Harris (left), vice president of health enterprise and chief business officer of the UT Dell Medical School, and Dr. Stuart Wolf, professor and associate chair of surgery and preoperative care, tour the state-of-the-art health facility in October. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The new mother struggles with postpartum depression. Her regular doctor, having tried to treat it, suggests it’s time to see a specialist. The new mother looks for a psychiatrist, but she finds that almost no one takes her insurance, and those who do are booked for weeks.

So she is left alone with her illness.

This story occurs commonly across the country — including in Austin, where mental health care needs to grow with our population. Now, this story has a hopeful turning point through a transformative collaboration between Integral Care, the local mental health authority in Travis County, and the University of Texas Dell Medical School.

Mental health issues and mental illness do not discriminate based on someone’s income, gender, political party, ethnicity or community status. But access to care is affected by all of these factors. It’s estimated that nearly 1 in 5 adults — 18.5 percent — experience a mental illness in a given year. In the Austin metro area, which has nearly 1.5 million adults, that equates to more than 270,000 people, many of whom will never get access to the care they need.

We must meet all of our community’s growing needs, including access to quality mental health care for people in Travis County. We must also rethink the way we provide care in the first place. The partnership between Integral Care and the Dell Medical School offers a powerful opportunity to improve the health and well-being of people in every part of our community.

First, Integral Care and Dell Med partner on efforts that directly serve people across Travis County and Central Texas:

• We are working with a range of community leaders and organizations to redevelop the Austin State Hospital campus as part of a larger effort to transform mental health care across the region.

• We opened a specialty clinic for mood disorders, connecting Integral Care’s clients with leading bipolar disorder experts.

• Dell Med researchers, armed with data and population health strategies, are working to reduce health disparities that affect Travis County communities.

Second, we are working to increase the number of medical students who choose psychiatry as a specialty. Already, second-year Dell Med students are seeing Integral Care clients in clinical and community-based settings, and graduate medical residents receive psychiatric training and work in a specialty clinic for patients with substance-use disorder.

Additionally, through a $1.8 million federal grant, Dell Med, Integral Care and other local providers are training UT students to work in multidisciplinary teams in primary care and specialty clinics that integrate mental health services with other forms of care.

Third, the partners jointly offer mental health care at specialty clinics operated by UT Health Austin, Dell Med’s new clinical practice. The effort recognizes that mental and physical health go hand in hand — treating a physical ailment without recognizing and treating potential mental health conditions can undermine care effectiveness and harm a patient’s health and well-being. This approach increases access to both mental and physical health care, reduces stigma, and supports collaboration between physicians and mental health care providers.

Dell Med is collaborating with the community in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how Central Texas views mental health and treats mental illness. Integral Care brings five decades of experience caring for people living with mental illness in Travis County.

By combining the skills and expertise of these partners, we can create a healthier, thriving community — not only for people living with depression and other mental illnesses, but for all of us.