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EDITORIAL: Mental health system requires urgent action

Columbian - 2/3/2019

Feb. 03--Imagine having a loved one going through a psychotic episode. They might be hearing voices or talking about nonexistent events or suffering insomnia or believing that somebody is shooting them with lasers or threatening violence to themselves and others. Now imagine having nowhere to turn, with psychiatric beds often full and with law enforcement often ill-equipped to deal with mentally ill people.

Many Washington families don't have to imagine such a scenario; it is their reality. The families of those facing severe mental illness often feel helpless and abandoned by a system that for too long has treated such illnesses as a nuisance rather than a call to action.

Some of their stories were told recently in a series of articles in The Columbian. Focusing on the efforts of a local group of mothers trying to find adequate help for their mentally ill children, the articles provide a close look at the struggles of families confronted by bureaucracy and an affliction that remains easily ignored in terms of public understanding and public policy.

Unlike somebody who is suffering from, say, cancer or heart disease, mentally ill people typically are not cognizant of their illness or able to assist with treatment. That compounds the difficulties faced by family members seeking help.

Gov. Jay Inslee has taken an important step toward addressing the issue, recommending a $675 million overhaul of the state's mental health system as part of his budget proposal for the 2019-20 biennium. That is big price tag; in truth, the cost of inaction would be even greater while leaving Washington residents and their families to languish.

According to the National Institute on Mental Health, more than 10 million American adults suffer from serious mental illness. In 2016, about half of them received treatment. Improving that system calls for several changes:

--Adjustments to the state's Involuntary Treatment Act, which allows for the civil commitment of afflicted people. It is difficult for families to find help even when a loved one is unstable, leaving patients in a spiral of declining health. While there must be consideration for individual rights, the law should reflect the fact that mentally ill people are unlikely to volunteer for medical help.

--Improved training for law enforcement officers. It is unrealistic to expect officers to play the role of medical professional and social worker in addition to the important duties they already have. But many law enforcement agencies have recognized that training can help officers defuse tense situations when dealing with somebody who is suffering a psychotic episode, and that leading those people toward the proper treatment is crucial. Most importantly, sending a mentally ill person to a jail that is not equipped to deal with their illness exacerbates the problem.

--More local facilities to keep patients close to their support system of family and friends. This is one of the foundations of Inslee's proposal, recognizing that isolation far from home makes it more difficult to address the illness.

--Changes to Western State Hospital near Tacoma, the state's largest mental health facility. The hospital has had numerous problems in recent years, ranging from mismanagement to safety issues for patients and staff. Much lip-service has been given to improving the hospital; it is time for effective action.

As legislators consider Inslee's proposal, they must act with urgency. Because all too often, Washington citizens feel they have nowhere to turn when dealing with a family member who is mentally ill.

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(c)2019 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

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