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Bexar County commissioners voted to allocate more than $2 million for mental health services for people who are eligible for treatment programs instead of putting them in jail.

Commissioners on Tuesday approved appropriating $2.2 million from the general fund for a contract with the Center for Health Care Services, which focuses on mental health issues, substance abuse, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. With the money approved Tuesday, CHCS will provide services to people with mental health needs as an alternative to jailing them, said Gilbert Gonzales, Bexar County’s Department of Behavioral Health director.

There are a few paths people with mental health needs who get arrested can take to receive mental health treatment, Gonzales explained.

“We are unique in the fact that each person arrested gets provided with a set of four screening questions that alerts clinicians, [who] then do an evaluation,” Gonzales said. “[With] a magistrate’s approval, they’re diverted directly into treatment.”

The Mental Health Court identifies people already in jail who need treatment and pulls them out, Gonzales said. The specialty court also helps people who are put under emergency detention for mental health and safety reasons receive guidance and treatment.

In the past three fiscal years, the Mental Health Court has seen 110 people graduate from its program, most of which is administered by CHCS, Gonzales said. 

“This has been a difficult year because of COVID, but yet the work continues to strengthen [with] a very positive partnership with the Center for Health Care Services,” Gonzales said. “I can’t speak enough to the importance of supervision and continuity of care in working with persons through mental illness.”

CHCS President Jelynne Burley told commissioners the organization was excited to continue its work with Bexar County to divert people with mental health needs from the jail and into treatment programs. 

“We’ve been working with Bexar County since basically 2008 on creating the diversion system of care for citizens in Bexar County,” Burley said. 

Burley added that CHCS has started to collect data on the Mental Health Court graduates to evaluate how many eventually return to its crisis center for support and how many are able to continue on their own.

“There had not been the collection of that data prior, but now we’re starting to collect that data,” Burley said. “… We can now track how often a person is detained with law enforcement. We can track how often they come to our crisis center.”

County commissioners also approved a $1.4 million contract with San Antonio Lifetime Recovery to pay for substance abuse services as part of the county’s Alternatives to Incarceration diversion program. San Antonio Lifetime Recovery leases a county-owned property on Southton Road to house people receiving inpatient substance abuse treatment. 

Lifetime is currently treating 28 men who were diverted from jail, Chief Operating Officer John Welsh said. People at Lifetime receive an inpatient treatment ranging from 45 to 90 days and then go to outpatient treatment lasting between eight weeks and a year.

“We offer the mental health and substance use disorder [program] to over 65 men every month for the last I don’t know how many years,” Welsh said. “I don’t want to get too emotional. I slept in one of the bunk beds 16 years ago. I’m no longer on the streets of Bexar County, I’m employed and paying taxes. I have a house. That’s our goal at Lifetime.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.