A practical step to fix shameful state of mental health care here

All around us, you see the evidence. In communities around Washington, you see major unmet needs when it comes to helping the mentally ill.

You see it in our burgeoning homeless population, where mental health issues and drug addiction reinforce each other. You see it in families struggling to secure care for a loved one, because of the difficulty of involuntary commitment or because of a lack of treatment options.

Western State Hospital has long been mismanaged and underfunded. After the deinstitutionalization movement in the ‘60s, community-based care wasn’t built up enough to handle the need.

Washington ranks 49th in the availability of psychiatric beds. We’ve been told by the courts that we can’t keep simply warehousing the mentally ill in hospitals and jails. What I wrote in 2015 is still true: “The fact is, our state’s treatment of the mentally ill over the decades is shameful.”

Lack of care makes police work harder, just shifts costs to criminal justice
It’s not all grim news. Improvements at Western State are underway. And Joel’s Law, passed three years ago, gives the parents of mentally ill adults new options for seeking court-ordered psychiatric care.

But a lot of work remains to be done. We still haven’t hit the right balance between protecting people’s rights and doing right by people who aren’t capable of making the best decisions for themselves. We need more community-based care to help the vast majority of people with mental health issues who don’t require long-term hospitalization. Local care is the best care, and for too many who need it, it’s too hard to find.

To maintain the status quo is to make a conscious choice to continue putting the burden of our unmet mental health needs on the criminal justice system. That is neither compassionate nor cost-effective.

Bipartisan proposal for voters to consider
Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia), Senate Republicans’ budget lead, and Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle) are determined to stop repeating the same mistakes. “Combining one of the lowest national rates of available treatment facilities with some of the highest need is a recipe for the crisis we see today,” Braun said.

Frockt and Braun are proposing $500 million in state bonds to build and expand community mental health services around the state. If it clears the Legislature, the measure would head to the ballot for voter approval. The bonds “could be used for a variety of treatment options including evaluation and treatment centers, crisis and stabilization centers, detoxification centers, transitional housing or other appropriate options,” their release states.

It’s unfortunate that the state of mental health care in our state is so dire, but it’s true. Braun and Frockt’s plan is a modest investment that would make a real difference. Spending the public’s money is something we should always take seriously and seek to do wisely. This would be a wise, and moral, investment.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.