As public officials contemplate how to make life better for thousands of mentally ill people in Washington, they risk succumbing to analysis paralysis. The state’s behavioral health system is so fragmented, the conditions it aims to stabilize so broad and staggeringly complex, that leaders often default to studying the issues to death.
What, for example, can they do to mend the chronically unsafe, understaffed wards at Western State Hospital? Legislators and the governor didn’t agree on much this year to fix the Lakewood facility, but they did deputize a committee to study improvements for the state’s two psychiatric hospitals. They also agreed to hire an outside consultant to advise on the hospitals’ structure and financing.
Likewise, Pierce County commissioned a study to pinpoint gaps in local mental health services — the first tentative step toward possibly adopting a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for mental health, which more than half of Washington counties already have done.
This is not to say gathering data is a bad thing. Taxpayers won’t tolerate officials throwing good money after bad.
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But it’s invigorating to see the rare case of resolute action, of local partners identifying a tattered corner of the safety net they can do something about, then committing to do it. No undue delay. No creation of another task force.
This is the story of the South Sound Behavioral Health Coalition. It pledges to build a 120-bed psychiatric hospital on the grounds of Allenmore Medical Center in Tacoma to treat what is truly an equal-opportunity disease, or rather group of diseases.
The coalition is led by local nonprofit health-care powerhouses CHI Franciscan and MultiCare. They have set their rivalry aside and each contributed $10 million for the $41-million facility.
Coalition members told the News Tribune editorial board that the hospital is on track for groundbreaking in 2016 and opening in 2018. They’re forging ahead despite an appeal by Signature Health Care Services, a California company that was denied a certificate by the state to build a Tacoma psychiatric hospital at the same time the coalition won its OK in January.
They also haven’t yet locked down the final $15 million or so needed to complete the hospital. After securing some state funds, they’re courting Uncle Sam, charitable foundations and local governments.
Preliminary meetings with Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup and Pierce County have taken place; a study session with the Tacoma City Council is set for May 24. Coalition representatives are scheduled to meet soon with Federal Way, Fife, Gig Harbor, Sumner and University Place.
Municipalities from South Pierce to South King counties would do well to join this venture. Their neighborhoods are full of people suffering conditions ranging from clinical depression to personality disorder, from severe addiction to post-traumatic stress, who could benefit from a stable inpatient treatment setting. The hospital will serve approximately 5,000 adults a year.
A few reasons why the coalition is wise to move forward, not wait:
▪ Pierce County has 2.8 inpatient mental health care beds per 100,000 residents. The state average is 8.3, the national average 26.1.
▪ People who can’t get therapy often wind up in jail, or on the street. The point-in-time survey of Pierce County’s homeless population released last week showed 31 percent of respondents self-reported a mental-health issue.
▪ The personal toll. Everybody has a family member or friend caught in the vice of mental illness.
No pain is more devastating than that experienced by the Meline family of Tacoma. On Oct. 25, 2012, 29-year-old schizophrenic Jonathan Meline killed his father Rob with a hatchet in his bed. Jonathan had bounced in and out of jail and Western State for a decade, and his parents had nowhere left to turn.
Rob Meline was killed in his home on North Union Avenue, just 10 blocks from where the coalition’s hospital will be built. Naming the crisis stabilization unit after him would be a fitting tribute to a man for whom help came too late.