Mental health continues to be a priority health issue for Pierce County, and it sometimes seems like we will never be able to fully address the demand for acute services.
The new behavioral health facility at Allenmore Hospital now being built by Franciscan and MultiCare health systems will provide an additional 120 beds for acute treatment. But just this month, the Telecare Recovery Partnership in Lakewood announced it will close its 16-bed unit.
Opening more beds, however, cannot be the ultimate answer for addressing mental health crises in the South Sound. We need to improve mental health through early prevention.
Research shows we can mitigate the downward trajectory and poor outcomes associated with poor mental health through early recognition and intervention in children and youth. Research shows that depressed mood is often the first symptom before the onset of schizophrenia.
In 2016, depressed mood and hopeless feelings were reported by more than one third (37 percent) of 10th graders in Pierce County and around 11 percent attempted suicide.
The onset of mental health conditions in children or adolescents disrupts the normal progression of social and cognitive development and results in greater impairment and risks for serious mental health issues in adulthood.
There are three important risk factors for developing mental health conditions: experiencing traumatic life events; living in a family struggling to make ends meet; and stress.
But with science and community efforts, prevention of mental health conditions is possible.
In our diverse county, low-income, African American, Asia Pacific Islanders and Latino families are especially vulnerable. Researchers have identified increases in mental health issues for children in families facing the fear of deportation.
Research also demonstrates that protecting undocumented immigrant mothers from deportation can dramatically improve the mental health of their U.S. citizen children.
Ideally, the deeply ingrained challenges of income inequity and discrimination can and should be addressed by our communities, social welfare systems and society as a whole in order to reduce the accumulation of risks for acute mental illness.
There are some promising new programs to improve prevention of mental illness in our community. The innovative Jordan Binion project and CHI Franciscan Health’s Prevent-Avert-Respond Initiative are bringing evidence-based mental health education to area high school students and teachers.
Our local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness coordinates support groups for families to improve communication, education and problem solving.
In Thurston and Mason counties, the New Journeys program helps families identify and respond to the first signs of psychosis.
School nurses, social workers and psychologists also provide an important safety net for children in distress. School districts that have invested more in these services have reaped the benefits.
Parents and other caregivers have significant responsibility for managing the well-being of children and adolescents. When children and youth develop mental health conditions, caregivers often report that they often underestimated the seriousness of early-warning signs.
We have not yet invested enough in supporting parents and caregivers in preventing mental illness in our region.
We need more support for prevention programs in our schools and community centers, along with better access to qualified pediatric mental health professionals.
We need local support for community-based research on promising programs and a greater commitment from cities, counties and healthcare systems to initiatives that prevent mental illness.
These efforts will assure the vitality of our youth and the future of Pierce County.
Sunny Chieh Cheng is an assistant professor of nursing and health care leadership at University of Washington Tacoma. Reach her by email firstname.lastname@example.org