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Construction begins on first public mental health hospital in Harris County in more than 30 years

By Natalie Weber, Staff writer June 26, 2019 Updated: June 26, 2019 7:06 p.m.
1of3This conceptual rendering shows UTHealth's Continuum of Care Campus for Behavorial Health. Officials broke ground on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, and expect to admit patients by early 2022. Once complete, the full campus, which will include the new hospital and UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center will become the largest academic Photo: Courtesy of UTHealth
2of3Construction on the new UTHealth Continuum of Care Campus for Behavioral Health began Wednesday, June 26, 2019, and be completed by the end of 2021. It will be the largest behavioral health academic center in the United States.Photo: Courtesy photo
3of3An unveiling of plans for the UTHealth Continuum of Care Campus for Behavioral Health was held Friday, Jan. 10, 2019, at 5601 W. Leland Anderson St. in the Texas Medical Center. It will provide 240 psychiatric beds in Houston, which has not had a mental health hospital built in more than 30 years.The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston broke ground Wednesday for its new psychiatric hospital, the first new public psychiatry hospital in Houston in more than 30 years.

The $125 million hospital, built in partnership with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, will add 240 new beds dedicated to psychiatric healthcare in the county. Combined with the UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center, it will make up the UTHealth Continuum of Care Campus for Behavioral Health — the largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country. It is expected to open in early 2022.

Fred Schuster, regional director for Region VI of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said during the ceremony that Wednesday’s groundbreaking was a sign of progress for the state.


“For decades, mental illness has been the largest health disparity that we did not talk about,” he said. “But today’s event is evidence that Texas is committed to changing that.”

Groundbreaking for UTHealth Continuum of Care Campus for Behavioral Health

First new public psychiatric hospital in Houston in more than 30 years

Largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country

Number of new beds: 240

Cost: $125 million

Completion date: Early 2022

Source: UTHealth


The hospital will provide mental health care in an region where many consider the Harris County jail to be the state’s biggest mental health facility.

“Our goal is to continue these investments and work to decriminalize mental health,” Texas State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said at the ceremony. “We need to treat mental health patients [for] the illnesses that they have — get those patients the help that they need out of our jails.”


Harris County has also been making efforts to direct low-level offenders with mental health illnesses to healthcare, instead of jail.

In May, the county announced it was expanding a program that would send people to the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center in Midtown as a pre-booking alternative in place of jail, if they show clear signs of mental illness and have committed certain non-violent, low-level offenses. From September to May, more than 1,000 people were sent to the center and authorities expected the number to increase with the new program.

In a statement to the Houston Chronicle, Denise Oncken, mental health bureau chief for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said the hospital will also help keep people out of the criminal justice system.

“Thanks to the vision of the district attorney and law enforcement, great strides have been [made] to keep the mentally ill out of jail by diverting them from the criminal-justice system when they are accused of low-level, non-violent offenses and instead getting them the help they need,” she said. “Not only does this save money for Harris County, it is the right thing to do. With the groundbreaking at HCPC, Harris County will be able to help more individuals on the front end before any involvement with the criminal justice system.”


And the addition of more psychiatric beds will make community-based care more accessible to people before they become involved in an incident with police, said Wayne Young, CEO of the Harris Center For Mental Health and IDD, a Houston agency with clinics across the region that works with people who have both mental health and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“They don’t have to go through the criminal justice system,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

On HoustonChronicle.com: Harris County to expand program for offenders with mental health illness

Sydrena Tufts, a recovery coach with the Harris County District Courts, said many of the clients she works with have been self-medicating because they have trouble getting access to the medications they need. She hopes the new hospital will increase their access to continuous care, as well as destimigatize mental health care.


“I would expect it [to] assist a lot of individuals that are too afraid to have the help,” she said later Wednesday. “ hope this would help them reach out.”

Young said increasing the number of beds is important because it will increase the availability of long-term care for patients.

“Not [everyone] can be stabilized in a short period of time,” he said.

At Wednesday’s ceremony, Dr. Jair Soares, executive director of UTHealth Continuum of Care Campus, also noted that one of the main goals of the hospital is to increase opportunities for patients who need long term care.


“This hospital is designed to be flexible to meet the needs of the community as they change over time,” he said. “Short term acute beds will be easily transitioned into longer term ... beds as needed.”

Melissa Allen, the chief medical officer of the UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center, said allowing for longer hospital stays can significantly increase patients’ ability to recover.

“By providing some more intensive care, we’re able to decrease the readmission rates within six months by 4.7 times,” she said. “Not only are our patients more stable and staying out of the hospital, but they’re able to return to their work and to their families feeling better and doing well.”

Staff writer James Pinkerton contributed to this report.


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