County must take stock of mental health needs

Pierce County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg
Pierce County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg Pierce County

As human beings, we have an obligation to help those in our communities who are suffering from mental disorders or behavioral problems. As public servants, we also have a fiduciary responsibility to wisely invest your tax dollars.

Because Pierce County has reached the point where doing nothing to address the growing mental health crisis is actually costing more than taking action, we’ve introduced Council Resolution R2015-91 that takes the first step toward finding an effective solution. It simply makes good ethical and financial sense to conduct a thorough and comprehensive evaluation of where service gaps exist, what their impact on county services are, where investments should be made and what success should look like.

Several years ago, Pierce County government divested itself of the responsibility to care for its mentally ill and chemically dependent citizens. Some believed – and continue to believe – that once the county was no longer a part of the regional support network (RSN), the government should no longer concern itself with behavioral health issues, as they are collectively called. It’s now someone else’s concern to oversee, monitor and fund the problem, they claimed.

We vehemently disagree, and believe it’s time to stop burying our heads in the sand.

Despite the problems Pierce County faces, the current RSN – Optum (a health-services company contracted with the state) – has made great strides in the behavioral health field; it started a felony behavioral health court this year and provided for behavioral health professionals and peers in the county jail. The county also has outstanding behavioral health providers, such as Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare, which has a successful program for jail transition services.

Relying on these and other organizations, however, is not a permanent solution. County government (meaning taxpayers) shoulders a heavy burden when behavioral health issues bleed through to other areas of society. Mental illness often contributes to poverty, hunger and homelessness. Those suffering from mental illness often turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to cope with their disorders, thereby creating both a mental health and a chemical dependency issue.

The state Department of Social and Health Services says 23 percent of its clients had mental illnesses. All too often those individuals are misdirected into our jail and justice system. We see it every day in our military population as well.

Pierce County is proud to be the home of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where many of our residents work, live and serve. But the stresses of a military life can be exceptionally difficult. As many as 38 percent of our soldiers report having psychological concerns, and more than 13 percent of the entire Army now suffers from post-traumatic stress. A 2011 study found that an estimated 40 percent of Pierce County’s homeless residents were military veterans.

The county’s youth population also struggles with episodes of declining behavioral health. Half of those in the child welfare system have mental health problems, and more than two-thirds of those in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental illness.

Without treatment, these children risk school failure, contact with the adult justice system, dependence on social services and even suicide. In fact, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for kids aged 15 to 24 in Pierce County.

We know that behavioral health issues have a significantly negative impact on the county’s justice system, hospitals and medical facilities, social services, schools and more. What we don’t know is if enough of those with behavioral health needs are getting the care they require, if the current level of funding is being directed to the right places and how we’ll know when we’ve successfully narrowed the gaps in our social safety net.

The state has made repeated cuts to mental health provisions in recent years and only recently has begun to reverse that trend. But more needs to be done, and soon. Optum, our behavioral health providers and other stakeholders in this fight are dedicated to creating an efficient, responsive system, but county government must be a partner.

The resolution we’ve proposed calls for a comprehensive evaluation of Pierce County’s behavior health system to help identify deficiencies and create a better understanding of the cost of having unmet needs. Because we can do all of this using existing resources, there is no excuse for turning a blind eye to the problem hoping that someone else takes care of it.

Connie Ladenburg of Tacoma and Derek Young of Gig Harbor are Democrats on the Pierce County Council.