Opinion

A lifeline for kids with mental illness

From the Editorial Board

Deborah Binion holds a photo of her 17-year-old son Jordan, who killed himself in 2010. The family has since helped pass a state law reinforcing parental rights of youths struggling with mental illness, and established a nonprofit that does mental health presentations for high school students. Her son might have benefited from a new inpatient facility opening in Tacoma this week.
Deborah Binion holds a photo of her 17-year-old son Jordan, who killed himself in 2010. The family has since helped pass a state law reinforcing parental rights of youths struggling with mental illness, and established a nonprofit that does mental health presentations for high school students. Her son might have benefited from a new inpatient facility opening in Tacoma this week. News Tribune file photo, 2011

Jordan Binion was just the kind of lost and hurting Pierce County teenager who might have found life-saving help at the new Mary Bridge Adolescent Behavioral Health unit at Tacoma General Hospital.

The 17-year-old Graham boy died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2010, months after he walked out of a Seattle hospital without the diagnosis, stabilization and treatment that could have saved him from delusions and suicide.

This week’s opening of a 27-bed juvenile unit in Tacoma, providing care for patients 13 to 18 years old, offers merciful relief for families of children who present an acute psychiatric disorder, like Jordan did.

The center, run by MultiCare Health System, has a decidedly nonclinical environment: restraint-free, shiny and open, with wide corridors and modular furniture that make it feel more like a school campus than a hospital.

It’s a far better setting for kids than the emergency rooms where behavioral health patients of all ages are often shunted for lack of a better option.

“We have seen a steady increase over the past several years of children presenting to (the emergency department) in mental health crisis overall,” Chris Ladish, a pediatric and neuropsychologist at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, told News Tribune reporter Craig Sailor for a story this week.

An estimated 7 percent of Washington youth age 17 and younger have had a severe emotional disturbance, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Many others haven’t reached a breaking point but show signs of distress. More than 38 percent of Pierce County 10th graders reported in a 2014 Healthy Youth Survey that they felt so sad or hopeless for two weeks or longer that they halted their regular activities. That was more than 8 percent higher than their peers nationwide.

Concerns about poor local mental health, as well as substandard prevention and intervention, prompted the Pierce County Council to contract for an outside study. Recently completed, it found gaps in therapeutic services here compared to other Washington counties.

But the study also contains reasons for hope, especially in the outlook for local youth. The Whole Child Initiative, a 10-year partnership of the Tacoma School District and the University of Washington Tacoma, assesses kids early for their emotional and behavioral well being. And starting this year, mental health education has been added to state high school learning standards. Teachers have been trained in seven Pierce County high schools so far.

Among those helping with the school curriculum is the nonprofit Jordan Binion Project. The Binion family has turned their heartache into a force for good; their work includes pushing for a state law in 2011 requiring mental health professionals to clearly notify parents of their right to commit their mentally ill child for treatment, even if the child objects.

This week’s opening of the adolescent center in Tacoma is certainly commendable, as is the streamlined red tape that made it possible. After legislators passed a law accelerating new child mental health facilities, MultiCare was able to open its youth psychiatric beds without going through the lengthy certificate-of-need process.

Despite some good strides, much work remains to increase services and decrease the stigma for behavioral health patients of all ages.

An alliance of local health care leaders and public officials should keep pressing to open an adult psychiatric hospital in Tacoma in 2018. The County Council must pass a .01-percent sales tax for mental health. And state elected leaders must agree to a bipartisan plan to fix chronic problems in Washington’s ramshackle system of inpatient and outpatient care.

Families desperate to avoid the ordeal of Jordan Binion’s family are counting on it.

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