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The impact of the pandemic has reverberated through us individually and as a community, bringing to light behavioral disorders that we didn't know we had and exacerbating conditions that we thought were under control. 

As we encounter new stressors every day, it has become clear that one thing binds us all: We must safeguard our mental health as we protect our physical health.

In summer 2019, UTHealth broke ground on a 264-bed center for acute and subacute treatment to do just that. UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center, a joint project between UTHealth and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, is being built adjacent to the existing 274-bed UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center.

Slated to open in early 2022, the new facility is centered around light, nature, and central living space to be naturally supportive of appropriate and helpful interactions between patients and health care professionals. Plans include a therapy mall, activity room, and a communal dining facility that look into the internal courtyard through floor-to-ceiling windows.

While the Harris County Psychiatric Center can provide acute inpatient care—the most expensive form of care—to 274 patients at a time, as many as 100 individuals may be on the waiting list for an available bed. Furthermore, many of our community’s most severely and persistently ill patients do not receive the treatment they need, especially as their treatment needs change as they integrate back into society from acute inpatient care. In addition to more acute beds, the new hospital will also have subacute care units for patients who need a longer stay to heal. 

Chronic and rapid readmissions to hospitals are two consequences of this gap in the continuum of care. It also strains the limited resources of hospital emergency rooms, psychiatric emergency services, law enforcement personnel, and jail services across the Houston area. The Behavioral Sciences Center will benefit Houston and the state of Texas through fewer readmissions, faster admissions for children and adolescents, reduced burden on law enforcement personnel and facilities, shorter time in hospital emergency rooms, and more cost-effective community-based levels of care.

“The integrated campus will help our team of carefully selected specialists maximize efforts to provide relief to Houstonians suffering from mental illnesses,” says Jair C. Soares, MD, PhD.

“Leveraging the latest research and education surrounding
mental health will help us provide innovative
and comprehensive care and help set a standard for how
mental illness should be treated moving forward,” he says. 

Leaders from across the state were instrumental in securing these funds in 2017, including appropriations bill SB 1 author Senator Jane Nelson, and House sponsor Representative John M. Zerwas, MD, (now The University of Texas System Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs), as well as state leaders Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Joe Straus. Senator Charles Schwertner, MD, and Representative Sarah Davis, who oversaw budget negotiations for health and human service programs, led the effort in their respective chambers to make sure this critical funding was included. Other members of the Harris County delegation were vocal in their support of the project and to ultimately ensure Houstonians will have access to mental health care.

UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center was a recommended project by two interim committees before the 2017 session. After a long study, tours, and briefings, the Houston project was recommended for funding by the Senate Interim Committee on Health and Human Services, led by Senator Schwertner and vice chaired by Senator Lois Kolkhorst (now Chair of the Committee), and the House Select Committee on Mental Health, which was led by Representative Four Price and included local mental health champions Representatives Garnet Coleman, Sarah Davis, and Senfronia Thompson.

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Upon completion, the campus—which includes UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center and UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center—will become the largest academic psychiatric hospital in the nation.