The Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals held a first-ever joint hearing on January 11 and established the Judicial Commission on Mental Health. The move came after hours of testimony from its supporters who say the time is now for the judiciary to step up its efforts in helping people with mental health issues.

Through the collaboration among the judiciary, policymakers, and mental health experts, the commission will help the state’s two highest courts better serve people struggling with mental health issues.

“We often think of mental illness as an invisible disease, but its effects can clearly be seen in our courts as Texans with these challenges find themselves in every part of the justice system: criminal, civil, probate, juvenile, and child welfare,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht said at the packed Supreme Court Courtroom. “Because people in mental health crises are more likely to encounter law enforcement than medical professionals, the courts often serve as the point of entry to access mental health services.”

A 2016 report by the Texas Judicial Council’s Mental Health Committee stressed the importance of the judiciary’s role in improving the lives of people living with mental health issues. The report cited the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, which found the state spends about $1.4 billion each year in emergency room costs and $650 million in local justice system costs to address mental illness and substance use disorders.

“Lawmakers have made great strides for passing judicial council-led reforms, including allocating additional funding for mental health and instituting better screening processes, jail diversion, and competency restoration,” said Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who served as the council’s vice-chair alongside Hecht, who served as chair. “Despite these improvements, there is more work to be done.”

The committee report found that of the 27 million people living in Texas in 2016, about one million adults experience serious and persistent mental illnesses. Those include schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depression. About 500,000 children 17 or younger have severe emotional disturbance, the report said.

Retired Justice Harriet O’Neill, who spearheaded the formation of the Supreme Court’s Children’s Commission and served on the board of directors of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, relayed to the high courts her findings researching the intersection of the judiciary and mental health. Courts need a new problem-solving collaborative model to stop the cycle of arrest and decompensation, or deteriorating mental health, she said.

Courts act as gatekeepers for families in crisis, O’Neill said. Children in foster care don’t enter or leave foster care without court and judicial supervision. The same is true for youth and adults with mental health issues who come through the juvenile or criminal justice systems, she said.

“At these critical intervention points, courts have a unique opportunity to profoundly impact lives for better or for worse,” O’Neill said.

Angel Carroll, a junior at Texas Tech University, spoke to the courts of her experiences with mental health issues and the juvenile justice system.

When she was 9, her stepfather died in Afghanistan and her mother suffered from alcohol abuse and debilitating mental health illness, she said. Carroll’s struggles manifested in anxiety, depression, and an addiction to prescription pills. She was in and out of the juvenile justice system, and by the age of 15, she was placed in foster care.

“As an adult I’ve often wondered how many times I could have avoided being sent to jail, detention, being on probation if someone only knew what I was going through, and I could receive that proper treatment,” Carroll said.

It wasn’t until she met with a court-appointed attorney that things turned around. That attorney, she said, listened to her concerns, understood her challenges, and tried her best to help. These days, Carroll is out of trouble and pursuing an education in communications and social work. With a similar support system through a judicial commission on mental health, courts can similarly improve the future and change the lives of millions, Carroll said.

“I firmly believe one of the most critical factors between me becoming successful and where I am today and not a statistic is the fact that she (the attorney) had an education and understanding of mental illness,” Carroll said. “I was lucky to have had that support system.”