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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Donnelly: Vancouver moms on mission to fix mental health system

By Ann Donnelly
Published: August 5, 2018, 6:01am

Our state mental health system is broken. Policy makers agree. The public agrees. Law enforcement agrees. Medical professionals agree. Yet progress is hard to measure.

Every day, news reports of the tragedies caused by mental illness remind us how far we have to go. Despite millions of dollars spent, Washington state is still falling embarrassingly short.

On July 6, our state’s incompetence made cringe-inducing national headlines in the Associated Press story, “Western State Hospital is ‘Like Going into Hell,’ “ referring to our sadly outdated and failing state behavioral hospital. As one critic (quoted in the article), who has sued the state hospital after her mother suffered many falls and assaults there, stated, “I honestly thought they would kill her before I could get her out.’ ”

So much state money has poured into crumbling Western State that the needs of other regions for new facilities with updated approaches are starved for funding. Of $17 million needed for Vancouver’s proposed Crisis Triage Center, meant to divert the mentally ill in crisis from jails and emergency rooms, only $3 million was funded this year. A stop-gap measure will likely be substituted, losing a well-conceived opportunity.

Even more disappointing is the lack of meaningful benefit from the millions allocated to Western State. Out of $142 million just added in state spending for mental health through July 2019, $46 million is going to pay fines for failure to address the issue, and $35 million pays for overruns and overtime. Inexplicably, the state Department of Social and Health Services has failed to implement the staffing tool used by many hospitals to minimize overtime.

So our tax dollars are being spent poorly. If only something — or someone — would light a spark.

A grassroots solution?

In 1980, one passionate woman founded Mothers against Drunk Driving. That grass-roots, family-centered movement changed an entire nation’s attitudes toward victims, perpetrators and prison sentences. Could a few deeply-impacted individuals do the same for mental health?

Enter Vancouver’s Heidi O’Connor and Jerri Clark. Each is the mother of a mentally ill son, and between them they have suffered more chaos, tragedy and despair at the hands of our failing system than most of us can imagine. Clark’s speeches about her son’s battle with mental illness have riveted audiences at the annual luncheons of the National Alliance on Mental Illness SW Washington.

Fed up with a broken system, the two recently formed Mothers of the Mentally Ill (MOMI ). They and 15 other families, as well as Peggy McCarthy of NAMI SW WA, visited Gov. Jay Inslee on July 26. Armed with an eight-point agenda, and personal letters from 25 family members around the state, they spent 20 minutes with the governor, who listened with “intensity,” and several hours with Rashi Gupta, policy director for mental health and a director from the state’s Behavioral Health Administration.

Among MOMI’s recommendations: reform the Involuntary Treatment Act, fund mental health beds for the severely ill, fix assisted outpatient treatment and create guidelines to properly enforce the Mental Health Advance Directive. A 54-slide presentation provides details.

MOMI declares “we are ready to carry our message to state legislators, city and county leaders, medical providers, law enforcement and courts, and the media . . . the lives of our loved ones are in imminent danger because of mismanagement and abusive, discriminatory policies in health care law and systems.”

MOMI is hosting its first community forum, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at 5411 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Suite 4 (NAMI SW WA’s office). The headline is “our families are in a state of emergency.” They are indeed.