Will study spur better care for mentally ill?

From the editorial board

A help-wanted sign in front of Lakewood’s Western State Hospital last November speaks volumes about the the fragmented, understaffed safety net for mental health care in the region.
A help-wanted sign in front of Lakewood’s Western State Hospital last November speaks volumes about the the fragmented, understaffed safety net for mental health care in the region. News Tribune file photo

Ask police officers, first responders or 911 professionals. Ask people who work in emergency rooms, shelters and food banks. Ask librarians and families. Ask them if there’s adequate help for the mentally ill in the South Sound community. The answer will be “no.”

The League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County recently published a Pierce County mental health report, a 56-page study that took almost two years to complete. The league hosted a panel discussion of it last week with professionals and public figures from the social service, medical, judicial, legislative and law enforcement fields.

The panel discussed the serious social and economic costs of inappropriately handling mental and behavioral health care, such as incarceration, revolving emergency room visits and homelessness. Each panelist relayed details of a system that is clearly broken.

Approximately 25 percent of the general population has some degree of mental illness, and while most are able to function with it, about 5 percent of the population suffers from conditions so severe and chronic they can’t function independently. They need assistance to avoid harming themselves or others.

In Pierce County, there is no coordinated system for delivering services to those with serious, disabling mental illness. A report conducted by Mental Health America looked at access of care for the mentally ill in each state. Washington ranked at the bottom, coming in at No. 48. This low ranking is due in part to Pierce County’s low inpatient psychiatric capacity.

In King County there are 27.1 psychiatric beds per 100,000 people; in Pierce, there are 2.8. In King, the suicide rate is 43 suicides for every 100,000 people; in Pierce, the rate almost doubles, to 72.

Blame low Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates or the lack of mental health workers. Blame recession-related cuts. Blame Western State Hospital’s Keystone Kops operation. There’s a thicket of blame, and underneath it all, piled deep and wide, is a population of ill people not getting services they need.

But the league’s report is not without hope. It also highlighted what’s going right in Pierce County, namely the programs run by for-profit company Optum, the contracted Regional Service Network, and MultiCare and CHI Franciscan’s plans for a new psychiatric hospital scheduled to open in late 2018.

Pierce County’s affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Health Illness, a community based nonprofit, is also working hard to help individuals, parents and caregivers affected by mental illness.

The league supports enhancing existing services, as well as affordable housing and expanded training for all who come in contact with the mentally ill. But none of this comes cheap, which is why the league also supports a 0.1-percent local option sales tax countywide for mental health and chemical dependency.

Governments ultimately fund their priorities, and the mentally ill among us must be a priority. King County and cities including Tacoma have already adopted a mental health tax to fund their programs.

There are plenty of things in Pierce County to be proud of. Treatment of mental and behavioral illness (including addiction) is not one of them. The League of Women Voters report issues a reminder that necessary funding and policies must be put in place to address this acute problem.