Senator hopes to revolutionize mental health care with Dell Med School

Austin State Hospital (DSHS Website Photo)
Austin State Hospital (Department of State Health Services Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With the future of the Austin State Hospital, or ASH, still largely uncertain, one Texas lawmaker says its fate should be decided while reforming the mental health care system on a larger scale. The move comes after a study reported that five of 10 facilities have not been meeting the standard of care.

“We have to do something about the Austin State Hospital. It’s unsalvageable. We need to rebuild it,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. His approach? Spend the next two years planning to create “an MD Anderson for the brain.”

“Brain health, at least in concept, is really no different than heart health, but we don’t treat it in the same way,” added Sen. Watson.

The mental health system response currently, Watson says, only treats patients when they are in crisis. “Too much of what we do in brain health these days is just dealing with crisis. We want to avoid having to do it that way. We’ve got to get past this crisis management.”

Sen. Watson says he will spend the upcoming legislative session fighting for lawmakers to approve and secure enough money for the planning process. Watson says they would spend the next two years planning for it, and then proceed with specific legislative action the following session to enact the changes.

In 2011, Watson set out to achieve “10 Goals in 10 Years.” The “MD Anderson of the brain” reform would fulfill one of his remaining goals.

Watson said Wednesday he does not anticipate the need for any bonds or the need to increase taxes on Texas residents in order to fund it. “We could be saving money if we were doing it the right way and I believe what we’re putting together — the revolutionary plan in how we deal with mental health — will end up not only making lives happier, making families happier, making our community happier, but it will also save us money.”

Liza Park was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 25 years old.
Liza Park was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 25 years old.

Liza Park, who serves on the board of directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, in Austin said the push for collaborative reform is exciting.

“It’s a game changer,” she said. “It’s exciting to see what can happen in Austin and what we can do, not only for the community, but for the millions of people that are affected to have a place where you can go and know you’re going to have the resources that you need.”

Park was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 25 years old. She considers herself lucky to have received the care she needed.

“I was fortunate enough you know, I have a good job. I have insurance. So, I had the accessibility to that,” said Park. “I think back about how hard it was for me and I just see so many people, and you see it on the news, and the first thing people do is put them in jail, and they’re not getting the help they need in jail.”

Park says there is a lack of understanding surrounding mental health in society and that needs to change.

“This is just how we were born. It’s a chemical imbalance and it’s just like any other disease,” Park said. “If you have cancer or you have a broken leg, it’s visible. People don’t treat mental illness the same way because they can’t see it.”

Park says it is largely thanks to her support system that she’s been able to live her life with a purpose, despite her mental health diagnosis.

“A lot of it had to do with my husband”, said Park. “He was just really encouraging, and he said you don’t have to be miserable, and sad and unhappy.” She says if those people with mental health issues can be treated effectively, they can live normal lives. Park said once she received the help she needed, she was able to ‘see the light again’ after living in darkness.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel and I’m the perfect example of that,” said Park. “I’ve been through so much, but, here I am. I have a good job and I’m married, and I’m going to have a baby, which I would have never pictured.”

Sen. Watson says if the state will move forward with the plan to reform the state hospital this way, the changes will act as a model for the nation to replicate.

To learn more information about NAMI Austin, visit their website here.

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