Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has taken a temporary leave of absence to receive in-patient medical treatment for clinical depression, according to a statement from her office Monday.
The statement says she has been at an out-of-state treatment facility since late July, and hopes to be able to resume her normal schedule by early September.
Asked about the delay in announcing Hidalgo’s absence, Brandon Marshall, a spokesperson for the county judge’s office, said officials “wanted to have a clear picture about the type of treatment and a better understanding of the course of the treatment,” before making a statement.
Marshall said the length of Hidalgo’s treatment initially was unclear upon her check-in to the in-patient facility, prompting the statement’s delay.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, the longest serving county commissioner, will preside over official proceedings in Hidalgo’s absence, per commissioners court rules. During Hidalgo’s absence, however, she “will remain in communication with key county staff and available to discharge her duties as county judge,” according to her statement addressed to county residents.
Hidalgo noted she is among 21 million American adults who suffer from depression, though her condition was undiagnosed until last month, she said.
Hidalgo also pointed to her stance on access to mental health care resources, saying that she is speaking out to help fight the stigma.
“Depression and other mental health illnesses are part of the human condition, and mental health illnesses should be treated just like any other health condition, Hidalgo wrote. “I feel so strongly that we should be open and forthright about mental health issues, which historically have been tarred with stigma that have prevented people from seeking the treatment they need.”
Hidalgo concluded her statement by reiterating that both she and the county remain available to act quickly in the event of an emergency and expressing gratitude for the understanding and support she has received.
Dr. George Santos, a practicing psychiatrist in Houston and former president of the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians, said long-term, inpatient treatment for clinical depression can last weeks and allows a patient to remove themselves from life stress, receive medication and spend extended time with therapists, Santos said.
Santos pointed out the lack of long-term inpatient mental health facilities in Texas and said those seeking such treatment are forced to go out of state.
Leaves of absence
This marks Hidalgo’s third leave of absence in less than a year, beginning last October when she took leave for what she said was recuperation from food poisoning and dehydration.
In January, Hidalgo took personal leave to visit her ailing grandfather in Colombia.
That week-long leave in January was announced two days after Hidalgo surprised onlookers by giving an unscheduled, 10-minute speech accusing her fellow commissioners of trying to “cut me out of the program” during a swearing-in ceremony for Harris County elected officials.
Hidalgo was scheduled to speak at a subsequent reception, but she did not attend.
Hidalgo was the target of criticism earlier this summer when she used profanity in publicly accusing her colleagues on the court of undue allegiance to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.
Her comments came during a Commissioners Court discussion about a mentoring program for at-risk youth, after Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia suggested the county talk to the sheriff’s office and Ogg’s office about the program.
“If my colleagues want to put this in the district attorney’s or the sheriff’s office, then we are going to take a vote and be on the record about who wants it to go where,” she said. “So that I can explain to my community what else we’re doing, because some of us are wrapped around the little finger of a woman who, I don’t know what the f— she’s threatening you with.”
In response to critical comments about her use of profanity, Hidalgo said the incident would not have drawn attention if she were a man.
Hidalgo, then 27, stunned the local political world by ousting her popular Republican predecessor Ed Emmett in 2018.
“It was a real shock to the system,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston.
Since then, Hidalgo, the first woman and first Latina to hold the position of Harris County judge, has been the recipient of laudatory national media coverage as a rising star in the Democratic Party and unceasing criticism from local conservatives questioning her experience, qualifications and progressive politics.
Hidalgo frequently has tangled with state leaders, including lawmakers, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick over her emergency orders during the early days of the pandemic, and the county’s conduct of elections.
Whereas previous county judges tended to focus on bread-and-butter issues such as flood control, transportation and parks, Hidalgo has used her position to pursue a set of progressive policies that are often at odds with state and local Republicans, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
“She simultaneously took county government in a new direction and one that’s likely in line with where the sentiment is with county residents but is at odds with state policymakers,” Jones said. “That, I think, made her a target. She, without question, has received more than her fair share of attacks and critiques over the past five years.”
Criticism against Hidalgo ramped up considerably last year after the Democrat-majority Commissioners Court awarded an $11 million COVID-19 vaccination outreach contract to a one-woman business that had worked as a Democratic political consultant.
Amid public pushback, the contract was rescinded, but three of Hidalgo’s aides and former aides later were indicted, accused of misusing official information and tampering with a government record in connection with the awarding of that contract. The three have pleaded not guilty to the felony charges.
Since her election, Jones said, Hidalgo has been subjected to not just the usual criticism that comes with being an office holder, but personal attacks, harassment, and sexist and racist comments.
Those attacks culminated in the county hiring an outside firm to provide additional security for Hidalgo, prompting further criticism from opponents.
Santos applauded Hidalgo’s decision to be public about her diagnosis and decision to seek treatment, noting it is one of the most common mental health disorders in the country.
“It should be seen as a message of courage and engagement and someone who is taking advantage of available resources,” Santos said. “I think that’s a positive message for anyone in the community, when someone who is a public figure is open about depression.”
Elected officials across the county released statements in support of Hidalgo Monday afternoon.
Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia tweeted in a statement that Hidalgo deserves the community’s respect, appreciation and support for her decision to seek treatment.
“I want to encourage anyone who is having a difficult time to talk to someone,” he wrote.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes her decision will encourage others who need help to reach out.
“My hope is that this experience can serve as a teachable moment and encourage others who need support to seek it,” Turner wrote. “We cannot let stigma stand in the way of treatment. Our thoughts and prayers are with Judge Hidalgo.”
Monroe Trombly and Paul Cobler contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a misspelling and to note the charges against the county judge’s three current and former aides are felonies.