Government officials joined Renaissance leadership to cut the ribbon on the new living room mental health center. Credit: Provided

AUSTIN —  A new mental health facility on the West Side will allow people experiencing a crisis to stop in anytime to get support from peers who have struggled with similar issues.

The drop-in support center opened Nov. 10 at the Renaissance Living Room, 4835 W. Chicago Ave. It is designed to be a place where people experiencing a mental health crisis can decompress, talk to state-certified peer specialists to get immediate assistance and get referrals for long-term care, said Michael Banghart, Renaissance Social Services’ executive director.

The living room is open 8 a.m.-midnight every day, but organizers are working to expand into a 24/7 facility.

“You can go in at any time and talk to someone who is a peer. Someone who was in the same position that you are, who can give you real tangible skills, things they’ve used or things they’ve learned about in order to get through the situation you’re in right now,” Banghart said.

The Renaissance facility is a living room, a type of community crisis center that aims to be a more accessible alternative to emergency room or psychiatric hospitalizations. People who are experiencing a crisis are typically emotionally raw and need time to stabilize, so living rooms are designed to give them a place to “calm down and get their head back, to maybe talk through these issues,” Banghart said.

“The goal is really for people to go back home, get back into their life in a healthier way. To be headed in a different direction, to get past the crisis that they’re in,” Banghart said.

The living room model has gained traction and support in recent years, including increased funding from the state’s Department of Human Services, which funded the new center.

Peer support can be more accessible than many clinical settings for those in a crisis since they don’t have to worry about making appointments in advance, having limited time with counselors or navigating insurance and other tricky aspects of the health industry, Banghart said. It is also far less daunting than inpatient care and emergency hospitalizations, which can be scary for somebody who needs help, he said.

Renaissance has offered health services, food assistance, supportive housing programs, street outreach and other resources for people experiencing homelessness or struggling with substance use disorder from its East Garfield Park headquarters for 25 years. The Renaissance Living Room will provide immediate crisis intervention and connect people to other programs that can address the cause of the crisis, Banghart said.

The center will give Renaissance Social Services a much-needed foothold in Austin, where there is a severe gap in mental health services and other basic needs, including grocery stores and medical care, Banghart said.

“There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that people in Austin experience more trauma than some other parts of the city because of the violence that happens, because of poverty. There’s not enough primary health care services available, and there’s not a lot of mental health care services available,” Banghart said.

The social service organization opened the living room as a stepping stone toward a long-term goal of opening a regional support center in the area. The group aims to address the acute trauma many West Siders experience and the conditions that cause it, Banghart said.

“One way to deal with that is to … help people heal from that trauma and learn the skills to manage it. And then on the backside, part of our greater goal is to help reduce some of that poverty and violence,” he said.

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