AUSTIN, Texas -- As the Austin City Council works to finalize the 2020 budget, there are calls to commit funding to help those experiencing a mental health crisis. The recommendations stem from a recent report examining how city leaders can do better, and among the proposals is an expansion of using mobile devices to increase access to care. 

  • Report calls for expansion of mental health access in Austin 
  • Report additionally calls for expansion of telehealth services
  • Video call aids people experiencing mental health crisis 

Thursday morning, at a council work session, experts from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute presented recommendations from a report that sought to improve mental health access in Austin. Other stakeholders from the Austin Police Department and Austin-Travis County EMS presented updates to implementing some of those strategies. 

Authors of the report recommend providing additional training for all 911 call takers so they can better triage a call requiring mental health services. The report’s authors also propose having mental health clinicians be a part of the dispatch center. 

B.J. Wagner, senior director of smart justice and adult policy for the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, said in other cities this has resulted in saving money in public safety resources. She said providing immediate connections to people in need of care can reduce the amount of time law enforcement spends responding to people’s home and the number of times people are arrested for minor offenses.

“Having a mental health care need has never been a law enforcement issue. It doesn't require somebody to enter the criminal justice system just to be able to receive their mental health care. We have to start realizing that mental health care is a medical need,” Wagner said. “There's always a need for a police officer to respond when the public safety is at risk. But we have to also be able to provide for those instances when they're not. That person still needs an immediate connection to mental health care.”

Another recommendation in the report is to expand telehealth capabilities. Since July,  Austin police and the nonprofit Integral Care have been collaborating in a pilot program using the technology. Mental health clinicians from Integral Care’s Expanded Mobile Outreach Team already join police officers on calls to provide crisis screenings. Marisa Aguilar, practice manager for EMCOT, said the goal is for clinicians to get to a scene within 30 minutes, and by having the telehealth service available, it allows the opportunity to provide immediate access to care. 

“Individuals tend to have better outcomes in their recovery and well-being, and it could minimize any future crisis episodes,” Aguilar said.

Some officers from the crisis intervention team will carry a tablet with them when they are duty. Meanwhile, clinicians will await video calls from those officers when they feel a person they are working with is in need of mental health services. 

“It provides officers with the ability to, right in the field, be able to hand off an individual who’s in a crisis, who may not need psychiatric care in that moment, to a mental health professional right away. They’re able to get that one-on-one connection, that visual connection,” said Senior Officer James Turner with the crisis intervention team. “Anybody who is in a mental health crisis, they need connection and they need connection to resources."

“One of the people that I talked to, I was able to link her to some resources, and the comment that she made over and over again was, ‘Thank you for listening,’” said clinician John Reynolds. 

Next month, community health paramedics at Austin-Travis County EMS will also incorporate this technology into their work. 

These paramedics help people who have historically relied on 911 to address non-emergencies. 

“It’s truly a holistic approach, so it starts with a needs evaluation that includes medical needs, medical history, mental health, funding gaps and resources. A lot of times those are some of the things that keep a person from accessing preventative health care,” said Commander Blake Hardy.