Fast Focus: How can we improve mental health care in the Tri-Cities? We're falling behind

May 12, 2013 

Mental health care in the Tri-Cities is woefully inadequate. Since May is Mental Health Awareness month, this is an ideal time to address one of the most glaring problems concerning mental illness in our community: using is incarceration as a makeshift solution for what should be treated as a major health issue.

A little history is in order. The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 led to the closing of the old insane asylums with the intent that these services would be addressed at the community level. Since then, thankfully, many with an illness have been able to medicate and lead normal lives due to the support services provided within a community. However, too many with a mental illness have been housed in jails -- and this is especially true in our own Tri-Cities community.

As a community we can and must do better. Several solutions would reduce this practice. First, we can establish a mental health court where offenders with misdemeanors could find treatment rather than incarceration. Secondly, we can establish a mental health triage center or a community mental health services center where the ill person could be assessed and treated properly rather than be booked into jail.

If these two initiatives were introduced into our community, it would be a win-win solution for everybody. Jail costs could be significantly reduced and the humane treatment of those with an illness could better be addressed.

-- NAN BOPP, Richland

A matter of priorities

We should quit dumping the mentally ill on the courts and cops. For years, far more people have been jailed with mental illness than ever were hospitalized, thus turning a medical condition into a crime.

Not to deny that serious crimes don't occur, but severe mental illnesses are real diseases. Diseases of the brain, in the same way that Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis are.

Twenty other counties in this state have adopted the 0.1 percent sales tax and created numerous and effective programs and policies for their people. Even though this issue has been brought up before, it seems it was met with a feeling of indifference or denial.

There's a huge need here folks and growing, all the while the revolving door of the court system is spinning faster and faster.

I believe the people of the Mid-Columbia are smart enough, progressive enough, and compassionate enough to accomplish what these other 20 counties have done.

After all, the Benton County dog shelter was put into place in no time, no problem. Does this say anything about priorities?.

-- GINGER GRIFFIN, Kennewick

Personal experience

I personally have struggled with a mental health condition. The stigma caused me to want to remain in denial, but I found a good provider. I have concern for others. This concern prompted me to found a foundation called 5150 to Recovery. It works to help mentally ill develop a life that helps them reach their greatest potential.

I call the care that most of the uninsured experience "Walmart therapy." The mentally ill fear solitude, so they go to public locations. It would be better if they had a mental health emergency room such as consolidated crisis response unit. In response, the foundation has started a support group to promote caring for each other. Peer support programs would help keep treatment relevant. In addition, we need a warm line where people can talk to someone prior to escalation of symptoms.

Frequently, mentally ill symptoms cause individuals to get involved with the court system. A mental health court would provide jail diversion programs if criminal intent failed to exist but disease symptoms caused inappropriate actions. Spokane County Mental Health Court staff will share Spokane's court model at a public forum on June 6 at the Mid-Columbia Library in Kennewick Library on Union Street at 6:30 p.m.

These are a start.

-- KEVIN KENNEDY, West Richland

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