Task Force Commits Austin to Being a Mentally Healthy City
March 1, 2005
On January 24, Austin Mayor Will Wynn released the Mayor's Mental Health Task Force report which defined the criteria to make Austin a mentally fit community by addressing gaps in services and building upon current strengths.
Established in August of 2004 and partially funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, the mayor's Task Force was the culmination of years of community concern over the emerging challenges faced by residents with severe mental illnesses and the need to develop strategies to improve services and achieve community goals. The intent of the Task Force was to identify the criteria that define a mentally healthy community, measure the status of each criterion in Austin/Travis County, and develop an action plan that builds upon Austin's strengths and addresses any weaknesses.
Officials predict that roughly one in five persons (or 130,000 of Travis County's approximately 667,000 adults) suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder. However, only 22,230 persons are eligible for public services by virtue of their having conditions (major depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder) that make them eligible for public mental health services. Even then, only about one-third of these clients are actually receiving services.
The Task Force drew more than 80 civic leaders and mental health professionals – representing over 40 civic organizations– to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Austin's community mental health services and to decide what criteria would be essential to defining a mentally healthy community.
Co-chaired by former Texas State Representative Wilhelmina Delco and former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia, the Task Force was supported by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and other local agencies. The Task Force included the Hogg Foundation's Lynda E. Frost, associate director for mental health policy and law, as well as executive associates Reymundo Rodriguez and Carolyn Young. The Task Force's recommendations addressed the challenges and gaps of mental health services by defining 39 criteria that, when achieved, would define Austin as a mentally healthy community. The criteria were grouped into five categories.
First, the Task Force identified criteria involving the infrastructure of the mental health services in the community, specifically the capacity to provide a wide range of services, particularly psychiatric emergency beds, residential treatment options, and housing supports. The greatest challenge to infrastructure development in Travis County is the scarcity of resources.
Second, the Task Force pointed to a critical need for a marketing campaign to educate the general public. A mentally healthy community fosters mental health educational materials to reduce stigma and to inform citizens that mental disorders are curable afflictions. The criteria also included establishing standards and guidelines for funding and delivering mental health programs. Needed plans and policies include a coordinated funding plan, standards of care based on culturally competent best practices, a city-wide housing plan, insurance parity for mental and physical health, a suicide prevention plan, and a plan for sharing information between agencies.
At the same time, the criteria for a mentally healthy community required programs that are designed to improve the availability of outpatient services, expand case management, enhance jail diversion programs, and provide mental health education from elementary through high school. Such programs provide a comprehensive continuum of mental health care and avoid the long-term costs of addressing neglected mental health problems.
Lastly, the Task Force argued for public and professional education and training programs addressing specific topics (e.g., appropriate crisis intervention strategies, recovery and self-determination, housing laws, and funding streams) targeted at specific audiences (e.g., law enforcement officials, policymakers, consumers and families). Such public awareness could reduce the stigma associated with mental illnesses and inform individuals about their opportunities for housing, insurance, and integrated services.
Given the sense of urgency, the Task Force developed an ambitious action plan to achieve these standards within six years. In order to address these 39 criteria in such a short timeframe, the Task Force also provided a set of recommendations to operationalize its action plan, based upon members' observations of the process and analysis.
Specifically, the Task Force recommended:
- Creating A Monitoring Committee: A monitoring committee appointed by the Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center's Board of Directors would facilitate implementation of the Task Force's action plan, as well as encourage long-term strategic planning and identify potential funding resources. The monitoring committee will serve for a five-year term and will report to the mayor annually.
- Coordinating Funding And Planning: A single entity (new or existing) would be responsible for planning, prioritizing, and coordinating community mental health initiatives and funding proposals, subject to endorsement by the Travis County Commissioners Court, the Austin City Council, the Travis County Hospital District, the Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center, and other related boards and commissions. Because new funding sources are unlikely, coordinating initiatives and services among different agencies will improve efficiency and generate cost savings by reducing duplication of services.
- Ensuring Cultural Relevancy: To ensure that mental health services are culturally and linguistically appropriate to the needs of Austin's diverse community, the Task Force recommended a comprehensive analysis of ethnic and racial demographics of consumers and an inventory of existing programs serving minorities and anticipated needs.
- Identifying Best Practices and Evaluation: The Task Force recommended a systematic process be instituted for identifying best practices and collecting quantitative data to evaluate program effectiveness and outcomes.
- Measuring A Mentally Healthy Community: A "mental health dashboard" would be created to measure the progress and impact of the criteria as they are implemented across the city. The "dashboard" would include measures that define a healthy community and document both the process and outcomes (e.g., the number of those in recovery, numbers served, and length of the waiting lists for various services).
"The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health is very enthusiastic about working with the Mayor's Task Force in addressing the mental health needs and opportunities within the city of Austin," said Hogg Foundation Executive Director Dr. King Davis. "We hope the city's leadership will serve as a model for municipalities across the state to consider how to develop mentally healthy communities."