Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is extending her leave of absence for treatment of her clinical depression until Oct. 2, her office announced Thursday. 

Hidalgo will be discharged Saturday from the out-of-state, inpatient mental health facility she has been at since late July and transition to outpatient care, her office said. Neither Hidalgo nor her office has identified the facility or the state.

In a letter accompanying her office’s statement, Hidalgo said she feels a lot better after a month-and-a-half of treatment, but the process has taken longer than expected. 

“My initial treatment plan had me returning to my regular schedule in September, but my discharge date was moved back, which moves back the re-acclimatization period,” Hidalgo wrote. “The way my doctors explained re-acclimatization to me is that you would not go from heart surgery straight to running a marathon, in the same way that they do not want me to go straight back to my usual schedule.”

Hidalgo wrote that she will continue to be in contact with her office and the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management while she continues treatment. 

Dr. George Santos, a psychiatrist in Houston and former president of the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians, said extended stays in residential treatment facilities for mental health are not uncommon. Santos is not involved in Hidalgo’s treatment, but said such programs often have the objective of developing skills to manage various stressors in life. 

That treatment can create an extended stay away from work, and it is not uncommon for someone leaving inpatient treatment to need to slowly transition back to their job, he said. 

“These sorts of education psychotherapy programs are not hard and fast,” Santos said. “You can’t think of these … like going into a medical surgical hospital for surgery and recovery for a physical problem.”

Hidalgo announced Aug. 7 that she was taking a temporary leave of absence to receive in-patient medical treatment for clinical depression at an out-of-state facility that she entered in late July. Her office said at the time she was expected to return in early September.

The Harris County Commissioners Court has continued its regular meeting schedule in Hidalgo’s absence, with Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis serving as chair.

The announcement came a day after Hidalgo’s 2022 election opponent, Alexandra del Moral Mealer, published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle calling on Hidalgo to either return from her medical leave or resign. Mealer argued that Hidalgo’s presence is necessary at a Sept. 19 Commissioners Court meeting where the panel will consider next year’s property tax rate and budget. 

Hidalgo’s team fired back Wednesday, accusing Mealer of using Hidalgo’s treatment for clinical depression to score political points. County operations have continued without disruption during Hidalgo’s absence, her office said. 

The court’s three other Democrats came to Hidalgo’s defense, saying their work has not been disrupted by the judge’s absence. 

Hidalgo will not return before the Sept. 19 budget meeting and has no plans to attend it virtually, spokesman Brandon Marshall said Thursday. 

Her absence means if Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey, a Republican, skips the meeting, the court will be unable to pass its proposed property tax rate because state law requires at least four of the court’s five members to be present to set a tax rate. Any delay likely would be short-lived because the deadline for setting the tax rate is the end of October, weeks after Hidalgo’s return.

Ramsey and former Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle skipped six meetings last year to prevent the court from setting a tax rate they said was too high. Without the quorum, the county was forced by state law to adopt what is known as a no-new-revenue rate that would generate the same tax proceeds as the previous year.

County budget officials have proposed an ad valorem rate of 53.03 cents per $100 of assessed value, which is slightly lower than last year’s rate of 53.06 cents. Property values are rising though, so officials project the new rate will bring in roughly $300 million more in revenue to the county. 

Under the new rate, the owner of a $280,000 home with a standard 20 percent homestead exemption would pay about 67 cents less than last year, if their home value remained the same. 

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo leads a Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, Tuesday, June 27, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Following the announcement of Hidalgo’s clinical depression diagnosis and leave, she received an outpouring of support from local and state officials from both sides of the aisle. 

“I have been deeply touched by all the messages that I have received, not only from Harris County residents but from across the country,” she wrote. “So many people wrote to me to share their own struggles with mental health and their support for my decision to be public about my journey. I am encouraged that so many in our community agree that treatment for mental illness should be normalized just as seeking treatment (for) any illness is accepted and expected.”

Hidalgo’s fellow Democrats on the court said their work will not be interrupted by the extended absence.

“I am glad to hear that Judge Hidalgo is progressing in her treatment,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones wrote. “She has set a positive example for others in our community, courageously seeking help and speaking on the importance of mental health treatment. The work of Harris County government continues, and we are prepared to adopt the new budget and tax rate that puts the people of Harris County first.”

Ellis said he will continue to preside over official proceedings and the county government will continue to run smoothly. 

“I was completely struck by the overwhelming love and support that the people of Harris County displayed after Judge Hidalgo’s announcement that she was taking a leave to seek mental health treatment,” Ellis wrote. “Now, it’s essential that we as a community give her the continued support and time that she needs to focus on her well-being.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Hidalgo’s decision to update the public on her condition and treatment has helped remove the stigma often associated with depression and mental health treatment. 

“I’ve kept Judge Hidalgo in my prayers and the news that Judge Hidalgo’s recovery is progressing well enough that she will be back to work soon is great news,” Garcia wrote. “Her decision to go public about her condition was courageous, and only those who have had similar experiences can truly understand the recovery process.”

This is the third time Hidalgo has taken a leave of absence in less than a year, beginning last October when she took leave to recuperate from food poisoning and dehydration, she said. 

In January, Hidalgo took personal leave for a week to visit her ailing grandfather in Colombia.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Houston Landing. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...