Every day Washingtonians are reminded that behavioral health problems in our state run deep and that the safety net that catches and cares for mentally ill individuals often proves weak.
We see it in the daily struggles of family members, friends and neighbors with treatable but untreated conditions. We see it in headline-grabbing spasms of violence, such as the delusional wood sculptor charged with fatally shooting his 78-year-old father this month in his gated South Tacoma home.
We see it in rising budget expenditures and legal costs associated with Washington’s fragmented mental health system — particularly at Western and Eastern state hospitals, where hundreds of the most acutely ill patients are involuntarily committed.
Now we have a chance to see an exciting wave of community-based behavioral health projects around Washington over the next 10 years, which would ease the pressure on both state hospitals.
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Sen. John Braun of Centralia, the Senate’s lead Republican budget writer, wants to ask voters to approve $500 million in state bonds to build everything from local crisis centers to evaluation-and-treatment facilities, from detox centers to transitional housing units.
Senate Bill 6468, which has bipartisan backing, was fine-tuned in response to valid concerns from the treasurer’s office that it would increase Washington’s debt load. We hope to see Braun’s revised plan move through the Legislature and secure a spot on the November ballot.
Over the last few years, legislators have begun reversing a pattern of neglect at the state hospitals and are on track to do more this session. Majority Senate Democrats propose spending an extra $163 million on the mental health system, including money for 45 new psychiatric beds at Western State.
Not only would this help the Lakewood institution handle a recent deluge of criminal patients, it also may help settle a federal lawsuit that’s resulted in $50 million in penalties. Separately, Western State is under federal and state orders to improve safety and to stop the intolerable practice of psychiatric boarding, in which patients are parked in jails and emergency rooms for lack of enough treatment beds.
Sadly, our mental health system will be overwhelmed on the back end until equal attention is paid to the front end. That’s why Braun’s measured plan makes sense.
More community therapeutic capacity is needed so that people can get help close to home, at less taxpayer cost, before they spiral out of control.
Pierce County officials are ahead of the curve; they plan to build a 16-bed, short-stay diversion center in the Spanaway-Parkland area, similar to one already operating in Fife, to keep people from crash-landing in the criminal justice system. But that barely scratches the surface of need.
Under SB6468, the state would have $50 million a year in dedicated funds over the next decade that communities could tap to fill the gap of humane, accessible psychiatric care. No longer would legislators have to go through the annual angst of pitting community mental health against other budget priorities, such as K-12 and higher education.
Braun’s original bill arguably went too far by proposing that all $500 million fall outside the state debt limit; the treasurer’s office, whose duty is to preserve high credit ratings and low borrowing rates, raised objections. Lawmakers came back with a solomonic, down-the-middle compromise: $250 million outside the limit, $250 million within it.
Persuading voters will require an appeal to both purse strings and heart strings. Ballot information must spell out exactly what would be spent, including total debt service, and what would be bought. Having children’s mental health care on the list should be non-negotiable.
But a long-term investment in community behavioral health resources is an idea we could easily stand behind.