Behavioral health study says more services needed for Pierce County’s most vulnerable

Pierce County has a higher-than-average need for behavioral health services compared to other counties in the state, according to a study presented to the County Council on Tuesday.

The study examined local, state and national data, as well as information gleaned from interviews with local behavioral health specialists and residents affected by mental health and substance abuse.

It offered recommendations for improving services but did not look at funding options.

The prevalence of diagnosed mental health and substance use disorders in the county is similar to state and national figures, but the county has a higher suicide rate and higher crime averages.

The county’s suicide rate is 18.5 per 100,000 people compared with the state average of 15.4 percent per 100,000.

The average violent crime rate is 5.1 per 1,000 people, compared to the state’s 3.2 per 1,000 people.

Additionally, the county has the highest domestic violence rate in the state at 1,000 per 100,000 people.

These factors play into the overall well being of residents, said Bevin Croft of The Human Services Research Institute, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm that conducted the study.

The report shows what “most people in Pierce County already know,” Councilman Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, said after the presentation.

There are gaps that need to be addressed, Talbert said.

“We can continue to find reasons not to do things, but it’s clear we need to get going on this,” he said about pursuing recommendations outlined in the report.

The report identifies “high levels of unmet need” with the proportion of people receiving services “far less” than those with serious behavioral health conditions.

It highlighted what is working to prevent and treat behavioral health disorders.

They included the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative, Optum Peer Support Services, mental health co-responder programs with law enforcement in Tacoma and Lakewood, community re-entry programs and jail transition services, and programs focused on mental health and drug use in Pierce County District Court.

The programs are effective, but need to be expanded to reach more people, Croft said.

Moving people from inpatient services, such as those at Western State Hospital, to outpatient services could stand improvement as well, she said.

“Many people who are discharged from inpatient services do not get connected to outpatient services,” Croft told the council.

The complexity of those affected means there is no single fix to the county’s behavioral health problems, Croft said. Instead, the report suggests a collaborative method.

“We also observed a need for more coordinated, cross-system efforts in community education, school-based prevention, screening and assessment in primary care and other social service settings, employment and housing supports, crisis alternatives, and coordination with the criminal justice system,” the report states.

More support is needed for housing programs aimed at reducing homelessness and helping people re-enter the workforce, according to the report.

The County Council commissioned the study Sept. 1, 2015, after members agreed a comprehensive evaluation of the county’s behavioral health system was needed.

Because the report was released Tuesday, the council didn’t have time to review it before the presentation. Instead, members will review the information before an Oct. 12 meeting at Pacific Lutheran University, where they will take public comment on the report.

The council will discuss the report as a whole at an Oct. 31 meeting.

Council Democrats pushed for the study with the assumption its findings would support their position that a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax is necessary to fund additional mental health programs in the county.

The trio — Connie Ladenburg, Derek Young and Talbert — recently introduced an ordinance supporting the tax increase, noting the county is one of the last in the state not to impose the tax. County Executive Pat McCarthy’s proposed 2017 budget assumes the council will pass the tax.

The council’s Public Safety, Human Services and Budget Committee will discuss the ordinance Nov. 14. A date has not been set for a council vote.

Behavioral health meetings

A copy of the behavioral health study is on the county website: piercecountywa.org/behavioralhealth

A series of public meetings are planned for October for public comment:

▪ Oct. 12, 6:30 p.m. at Pacific Lutheran University, Chris Knutsen Hall, Anderson Center, 12180 Park Ave. S.

▪ Oct. 19, 9:30 a.m. at County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S. in Council Chambers with presentations from Pierce Together, Behavioral Health Coalition and League of Women Voters.

▪ Oct. 31, 1:30 p.m. at County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S. in Council Chambers for council discussion.