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headlines in the Associated Press story, “Western State Hospital is ‘Like Going into Hell,’ “ referring to our sadly outdated and failing state behavioral hospital.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.