Sally Hernandez, Sheriff of Travis County, Texas (encompassing the capital city of Austin), is shaking up the status quo when it comes to how law enforcement faces the mental health crisis in her county. With nearly one-third of all inmates in the Travis County jail suffering from some form mental illness, the sheriff is determined to lower that number significantly.
“When I was running for office a couple of years ago, I was struck by the number of people who had adult children with mental illnesses who shared their stories of arrests and difficult jail experiences,” recalls Sheriff Hernandez. “They asked me what I was going to go do about it.”
She teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Austin to learn more about driving positive change in the community. (Related: Read about NAMI’s Executive Director Karen Ranus.)
“I attended a NAMI panel discussion and heard a young lady tell her story about not realizing she had a mental illness and suffering a lot of issues.” says Hernandez. “To make herself feel better, she was drinking and doing drugs. Many people refer to this as self-medicating. This behavior resulted in an arrest and she was incarcerated in the Travis County Jail. She shared how difficult the process was. Ultimately, she realized she had a mental illness and got help. But it really got me thinking about how we can divert people from having them go through this at all. Let’s help people before they get into jail.”
Today, Sheriff Hernandez is involved in a number of initiatives and efforts in partnership with other Austin-area organizations to help people with mental illness.
“We’ve increased training for our deputies and corrections officers so they will be equipped to better respond to someone who is in crisis.” she explains. “We’re working with the District and County Attorney’s Offices and several others to empower families to get their loved ones help. We now have folks from NAMI come into our correctional facilities to meet with family members of inmates who have mental illness to help them learn what to do in a crisis, what resources are available – even what to say when they need to call law enforcement in an emergency. We added a mobile crisis outreach team in the booking area of our jail to create the opportunity for diversion to resources or a care facility.”
Sheriff Hernandez will join Karen Ranus of NAMI and Father Charlie Garza for the session, “Mental Health Panel: It Takes a Village” at What’s the Fix? on May 17. Register to watch online here.