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Art of Community | We may need to find a better solution for crisis mental health services

The Wenatchee World - 12/28/2019

Dec. 27--Is Catholic Charities capable of delivering effective mental health crisis services to North Central Washington?

That question is weighing heavily on the minds of some law enforcement officials, mental health leaders and others who have been monitoring the organization in the weeks since Catholic Charities crisis supervisor Eric Skansgaard took his life in November. His death knocked a huge hole in the crisis management and diversion programs locally; and as a result, law enforcement and the jail have been significantly impacted. It is also forcing Catholic Charities to shift resources to continue providing services in crisis casework and diversion.

At a Wednesday, Dec. 18 meeting called by Catholic Charities to discuss the plan of action following Skansgaard's death. Carol Opel, the North Central director of the organization, promised that more resources would be devoted to crisis services and that she had the full support of the Yakima office. Opel told the group she is committed to solving the challenges that exist in crisis services here.

Strong concern was expressed by several attending the meeting about how Catholic Charities has managed crisis and diversion services prior to Skansgaard's death and in the weeks since the tragedy. While they praised the dedication and sincerity of the local Catholic Charities staff, there was a strong concern that decisions would continue to be made at the regional office in Yakima with little regard for what it takes to best serve needs here.

I sat at a table with Douglas County Commissioner Mark Straub, Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay, Chelan-Douglas County Health Department Director Barry Kling, Linda Evans Parlette of the Accountable Community of Health, among others.

The question around the table was whether Catholic Charities, which is also doing work in addressing homelessness and other social service work, has too many irons in the fire and the area might be better served by having crisis and diversion services handled by another agency. Catholic Charities has the contract for those services through Beacon Health Options, in a contract arrangement through the state.

Julie Rickard, of the Suicide Prevention Coalition and a mental health provider, said that "what they (Catholic Charities leadership) say and what actually happens are different. I'm not convinced you have the final power."

"I can't change the past, but I can definitely make changes for the future," Opel responded.

Barry Kling, the director of the Chelan-Douglas Health District, said the problem has not been the local Catholic Charities staff; but that in the past, there were times when local leaders were overruled by the Yakima office.

I had the opportunity to read the suicide note left by Eric Skansgaard. The note included strong criticism of Catholic Charities' leadership and support as well as his frustrations with the some in the medical and legal community here.

Darlene Darnell, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities in Yakima, said the organization is "committed to work-life balance for all employees and offers leave time to best meet each employee's individual needs, which Eric took advantage of."

One of the ideas floated at the Dec. 18 meeting was to have an independent investigation of the workplace environment. That idea, proposed by both Overbay and Kling, would seem to be a logical step. An outside investigation would hopefully bring greater clarity to where the system is functioning well and where it needs improvement.

We cannot afford to have a poorly functioning crisis services system in our region. We must improve mental health services, face squarely into whatever problems exist, and find locally solutions wherever possible.

Eric Skansgaard left a legacy of innovative service to people with mental health issues who are in crisis. We need an effective system here that serves local needs.

Let us not rest until that gets done.

Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at rwoods@wenatcheeworld.com or 509-665-1162.

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