As our community grapples with COVID-19 and the impact on patients, healthcare workers and the healthcare system, we are beginning to recognize the toll this situation is taking on mental health. Whether it is an essential worker under pressure to perform on the job while worrying about exposure or someone with a compromised immune system isolated at home, COVID-19 is having short and long-term impact on our mental health. During these anxiety ridden times, it is reassuring to know that we have systems in place to address our community’s mental health needs and unexpected challenges.


This situation is no accident! It results from the visionary leadership of many, and one in particular, our state senator Kirk Watson.  In his 2011 “10 in 10” speech to Austin and Travis County business and community leaders, delivered in his famous, unencumbered, ‘tell it like it is’ style, Watson set the course for community and healthcare transformation. The task seemed overwhelming, but true to form, Watson strategically accomplished the unimaginable by achieving all 10 goals. In particular with goal #7 – provide needed psychiatric care and facilities – he became a vocal and steady advocate for people living with mental illness, an often forgotten group in the halls of government.


Watson called psychiatric care in 2011 “shocking, tragic and unacceptable” in that uninsured folks were experiencing delays of up to five months in obtaining basic treatment. As a former Austin mayor, he knew too well the need for stronger support for mental health care access and services.


Watson’s effectiveness stems from his ability to work across the aisle and generate bipartisan support for important initiatives. State efforts such as 1115 Medicaid Transformation Waiver, HB13 and SB292 and others created opportunities for expansion of behavioral health services.


With his help, new programs improved access, including:

  • Integral Care’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, expanded to co-respond with first responders, diverting people in crisis from local emergency rooms or jail to health care.
  • School-based counseling within historically underserved Del Valle, Manor and Pflugerville communities.
  • A Forensic ACT team to help people stay out of jail and get on a path to a new life.
  • Mental Health First Aid training for school personnel to identify students struggling with mental health issues and direct them to services.

In 2012, Senator Watson campaigned for the expansion of local tax dollars dedicated to healthcare, creating the opportunity for the launch of the Dell Medical School. In partnership with Integral Care, the local mental health authority, the Dell Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry is now training the next generation of mental health clinicians and expanding access to care with psychiatry residents providing services in local clinics. Innovative collaborations are establishing best practice programs for Transition Age Youth and individuals living with mood disorders – creating opportunities for recovery and a new life.


Most recently, Watson championed the transformation of the outdated Austin State Hospital (ASH) into a world-class brain health center. His vision –  to create a redesigned delivery system that would help prevent hospitalization and support better reintegration post hospitalization. Working with key collaborators such as Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Dell Medical School as well as local stakeholders, Watson navigated political landmines and complex state and federal funding mechanisms to create a pathway to a modern replacement of ASH. This $300 million-dollar innovative project will create a 240-bed, truly modernized hospital located on the historic Hyde Park campus. This hospital, previously identified as one beyond repair, will become a landmark of high quality care and Texas’ commitment to people who need specialized care.


Finally, and perhaps the glue that makes it all stick together, is Watson’s work to promote better understanding of mental illness. He is a champion of the “It’s Okay to Say” campaign aimed at reducing the stigma of mental illness. The awareness campaign explains that mental illness is genetic, biological or stems from past traumas and is a health condition like cancer, arthritis or diabetes. Watson’s open discussion of brain health has changed hearts and minds.


Perhaps it comes from being the son of a nurse, or a cancer survivor himself. Maybe it was experiencing the shocking loss of a dear friend and mentor to suicide. No doubt these things helped shape Kirk Watson, and drove him to want to give back in a really big way. As he moves onto new ventures April 30, we wanted to ensure we acknowledged his extraordinary work, even in the midst of the pandemic. We will miss him in Austin. We are forever grateful.


By David Evans, CEO of Integral Care, Karen Ranus, Executive Director of NAMI Central Texas and Dr. Stephen Strakowski, Dell Medical School.