Commentary: How Texas courts can step it up for mental health services

In January, the Supreme Court of Texas and the Court of Criminal Appeals, for the first time, joined together as one court to focus the attention of the highest judicial officials in the state on one topic: mental health. People from across the state appeared before Texas’ high courts to testify on how the judicial branch can play a key role in transforming the way we treat people with mental health needs.

This Tuesday, the result of that hearing – a groundbreaking, permanent Judicial Commission on Mental Health – meets for the first time in Austin, with 31 commissioners and dozens of mental health advocates and professionals coming together as a whole new problem-solving model for the Texas court system. Interest in serving on this commission has been unprecedented, largely because of the great challenge we face.

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Until now, our traditional model of crime and punishment has been poorly equipped to handle defendants with mental health issues – needs that manifest themselves in all sorts of court cases, be they civil, criminal, probate or family. No young person or adult enters or exits our juvenile or criminal justice systems without a judge serving as gatekeeper. Civil courts, as well, handle many cases that require an understanding of complex mental health issues. At these critical points of intervention, the judiciary has a unique opportunity to profoundly impact lives, for better or for worse.

To make good decisions, courts must have specialized training, an understanding of best practices and of the resources available to treat people with the care they need, which can vary widely by person and problem. There is no law school or single source to adequately prepare our judges and lawyers for the kinds of mental health problems they must address in our courts. Judges and lawyers often need input from family, professionals and other experts to achieve better outcomes and appropriately meet these needs of people in crisis.

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When it comes to mental health, the National Center for State Courts has cited a need for nothing less than a cultural shift in our courts, and accordingly, Texas judges have made the decision to step up and lead the way with reforms that will benefit the lives of all Texans.

The Judicial Commission on Mental Health will spearhead improvements in the quality, effectiveness, and timeliness of decisions affecting those with mental illness in the justice system. The commission will broaden collaboration to promote better policy development, judicial education, data sharing and performance measurement. The commission will also focus attention on specialized needs where one size does not fit all, as in our rural communities or among populations that are generalized due to a lack of resources. And I am confident that the commission will prove to be an invaluable resource for the Texas Legislature as it develops policy solutions and will serve as an advocate and leading authority to craft, test, and expand ideas that work.

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This is a massive undertaking — but then, we face a massive problem. Three of every four Texas voters have a friend or family member who has experienced a mental health need, according to a survey commissioned by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. Those who come into the court system suffering from unmet needs deserve jurists trained to identify and address the problem.

I applaud the Texas judiciary for taking the first steps to join hands with the vast array of stakeholders in this great endeavor to expand their focus beyond punishment to healing those in need.

O’Neill served two terms on the Supreme Court of Texas, retiring in 2010, and founding her law office. the Law Office of Harriet O’Neill.

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