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Hannah Huntt

Manager, Communications Projects at National Council for Mental Wellbeing

Strengthening Communication and Collaboration: The Travis County Health Justice Learning Collaborative

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Danny Smith, Director of Mental Health and Inmate Programs in the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, and Sherry Blyth, Director of Crisis Services at Austin Travis County Integral Care (ATCIC), have known each other for over ten years. However, despite their long-standing ties and the significant overlap in the populations their organizations serve, their professional relationship has often been limited. Fostering adequate communication and cooperation between the equally immense community behavioral health organizations and county jail system has proven difficult in not only Travis County, but throughout the United States. Millions suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders are housed in county jails throughout the country, overwhelming the current care infrastructures for these underserved populations.

However with support from the Health Justice Learning Collaborative (HJLC), Danny and Sherry are now capitalizing upon their friendship to fortify ties between the Travis County jails and community behavioral health organizations. They believe that improved communication and a greater understanding of their respective organizations can improve the integrated systems of care in Travis County and reduce the prevalence of incarcerated individuals with mental illnesses in Travis County’s criminal justice system.

Blyth says, “The overarching goal was really to build the communication between our teams, and we both made a concerted effort to get our teams together so that they would start to get to know each other and understand each other’s systems.”

The staff at the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and ATCIC are now working together to improve methods of diversion and reduce recidivism. By analyzing the booking and judicial processes, training local police in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) and expanding mental health services to the first responder system, the sheriff’s office has managed to greatly improve their diversion rate. ATCIC has implemented same day access at their largest clinic, decreasing the amount of time between identification and treatment, and a dedicated number for their call center now allows patients to reach professionals easier. Additionally, data from ATCIC indicates the no show rate for appointments has dropped from 30 to 15 percent since the implementation of the Just in Time scheduling tool.

Despite all the success, the road to improved health outcomes for Travis County’s criminal justice population has not been without challenges. Coordination between two large, systemically different organizations has required both parties to learn their counterpart’s limitations. On the mental health side, ATCIC has grown by more than 30 percent in a two year period, prompting a reorganization process. Similarly, the Sherriff’s office faced the obstacle of implementing new regulations from The Texas Commission on Jail Standards. However, Sherry says the HJLC helped maintain a focus on their joint ambitions and preserve pathways of communication in spite of the challenges.

Going forward, the pair hopes to continue developing their collaboration to serve Travis County’s mentally ill, incarcerated population.

According to Smith, “It takes a community to be involved in this—that you have to have the courts involved, you have to have the sheriff involved, you’ve got to definitely have the mental health center involved, as well.”

Blyth and Smith say they still have a long list of tasks they’re hoping to implement. In the near future, they want to increase access to mental health bonds, administer enhanced mental health training to sheriff’s department officers and create profiles of the mentally ill incarcerated populations to gain a greater understanding of preventing both initial incarceration and re-entry. Thanks to the Travis County HJLC, Blyth and Smith are starting with a clearer goal in mind and a robust support system to get them there.

Photo created by Fit Approach and found here.

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