Mental health classes launch at Travis Co. Jail for inmates’ families

Prison jail cell
FILE - Jail cell (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Travis County Sheriff’s Office is partnering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Austin in an effort to decrease the number of inmates with mental illness incarcerated in the jail.

NAMI will offer its second in a series of classes for family members and friends of inmates currently incarcerated at the Travis County Jail, later this month. The agency wants to provide resources to families so they can be proactive when it comes to seeing the signs and symptoms of what a relapse might look like.

“Because so often what we know is that when families and individuals who are navigating mental health issues aren’t educated, they often times are waiting until they are in crisis to reach out for help,” said Karen Ranus, executive director of NAMI Austin. “Crisis is not the best place to be getting the help that you need.”

The 4-hour free course offers families critical education about mental health and support services to better equip them to handle their loved one and his or her mental illness when they are released from jail and hopefully, prevent another stint in jail.

In Travis County alone, 33 percent of the inmates in the jail have some form of mental illness.

“They need to go to mental health providers and get the help that they need before they get incarcerated,” explained Sheriff Sally Hernandez. “We have to figure out how we can not only help the inmates, but help the families and empower those families to address this problem.”

Travis Co. Sheriff Sally Hernandez poses with NAMI instructors (Courtesy: Travis Co. Sheriff's Office)
Travis Co. Sheriff Sally Hernandez poses with NAMI instructors (Courtesy: Travis Co. Sheriff’s Office)

Barbara Vinson’s son, Michael, has been in and out of jails across the state of Texas. Little did she realize it when he was a teenager, Michael was turning to illegal drugs to self-medicate. She now knows and can fully understand that Michael is living with a disease: bipolar disorder.

“He started just simply by doing marijuana because he wanted to slow down his racing thoughts,” said Vinson. “He had exhibited these behaviors when he was young, but I didn’t know it. I didn’t know anything like that until I educated myself with NAMI. Then I learned he was born this way — a biological brain disorder. My son was born this way. It’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s fault.”

After years of benefiting from the NAMI Austin community and its resources, Vinson now teaches the new course at the Travis County Jail.

“I want people to know there’s hope,” she said, crying. “Get help, get support. Find out exactly what is going on with your child. Don’t look at the illness. Look at your child first, and get them help.”

As for her son, Michael? “He’s happy and he’s not doing drugs. He’s taking his meds and living day by day… and that’s all you can ask for,” Vinson said.

Both the sheriff’s office and NAMI Austin say this is just the beginning of this partnership — a foundation moving forward. The organizations say they hope to build on the program, here on out.

“Mental illness is a huge issue and it’s going to take everyone doing their part to help find ways and means to help families,” added Sheriff Hernandez. “To me, it’s a win-win partnership that I am very, very thankful [for].”

For more information about NAMI Austin and the resources available, click here. 

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