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April 11, 2021

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Proposed Vancouver mental health facility receives positive feedback

DSHS plans 48-bed site; some commenters do express concerns

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

A proposed 48-bed secure behavioral health facility in Vancouver has so far received primarily positive feedback from the community.

During the project’s public comment period, which ended Friday, the state Department of Social and Health Services received 29 email messages; it also held a July 23 community meeting attended in person by seven people and through video conference by nine people, the agency said.

Local doctors and residents with family members who have mental health issues spoke in favor of the facility, with one commenter calling it “desperately needed.” Washington ranks 47th in the nation in capacity for appropriate mental health services. The central Vancouver campus would provide 90- and 180-day stays under the Involuntary Treatment Act, which allows people to be civilly committed to hospitals or treatment settings if a judge finds they pose a threat to themselves or others.

Larry Covey, capital projects manager with DSHS, said the department will consolidate the public feedback and review the city’s requirements for public facilities before applying for permits in late September. That process, which includes another public comment period and review by the hearings examiner, should take four to six months.

“Once that’s all done, we’ll be able to apply for a building permit,” Covey said.

He aims to start construction in June 2021. Covey said concept art of the facility could be available in the next month or so.

“It’s going to be a new vision for DSHS and how we provide mental health services,” he said.

The aim is for a softer, home-like atmosphere that addresses patients’ needs and challenges. It’s part of the state’s vision to move away from large psychiatric facilities like Western State Hospital in Lakewood toward more intimate settings closer to home. Vancouver could be the first city in the state to see this new kind of mental health evaluation and treatment facility.

Two or three secure, locked buildings would be divided into three units with 16 beds apiece. Some bedrooms would be shared, while others would be private. According to pre-application documents submitted earlier this year to the city, the buildings would include areas for group activities, laundry rooms, a kitchen and an outdoor area surrounded by a chain-link fence with anti-climb fabric.

The state is eyeing property adjacent to and owned by Columbia River Mental Health Services at 6926 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd., in the Bagley Downs neighborhood.

In public comments people advocated for additional beds, an exercise room and adequate meeting space for family members, caregivers and support groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Few alternatives

Someone who has experienced mental health crises in Vancouver said they had to travel to Yakima County when they needed residential care because there were no local alternatives. Transportation can be a barrier to treatment for some.

Christy Dunbar noted that sending patients from Clark County to Lakewood is detrimental to their success because relatives cannot attend routine family counseling appointments.

She’s concerned about whether a for-profit or nonprofit provider will run the proposed facility.

“I do not want to see the quality of care reduced or stays unjustly extended in order to increase shareholder profits. Mental health is not a for-profit industry and I urge you to choose your partners in this endeavor wisely,” Dunbar told DSHS in an email.

Dr. Alan Jones noted that “for so long our country has put mental health on the back burner.” He’s seen many patients who had to be committed to Western State Hospital creating a hardship for their families. Jones considered the new, local facility a step in the right direction.

An anonymous commenter said facilities like the one proposed are “examples of psychiatry at its worst,” comparing them to prison.

“Anything that is either coercive or outright forceful has no place being marketed as a service towards its victims,” the email said.

While many praised its central location, a couple of people said they believe the site isn’t well suited for a mental health facility due to traffic, noise and lack of natural surroundings. One email comment recommended a setting with access to nature, similar to the forested surroundings of the Vancouver DSHS office.

“We feel as if we can mitigate a lot of that stuff,” Covey said.

The design will take surrounding noise into consideration and incorporate therapeutic gardens in the landscaping. Covey said the site was selected in part for its accessibility and proximity to public transit. Some family members who want to be part of the recovery process don’t have a car, so they can’t access a remote facility.

DSHS looked into locating a behavioral health community in five other sites around Clark County besides Bagley Downs. If the state purchases the land from Columbia River Mental Health Services, neighbors will be notified by certified mail.

Lynsey Horne, program coordinator with Urban Abundance, was concerned about the fate of the property’s existing community garden, one of the largest in the county. Covey followed up with Horne and determined the new facility could accommodate about 70 garden plots, but he’s unsure if the fruit trees planted on site need to be relocated.

The Legislature devoted $20 million in initial funding for the Clark County project, which is estimated to total $50 million.

Around the same time, DSHS looks to construct a 16-bed facility at the Maple Lane youth detention center in Centralia that’s similarly intended to feel more homelike and less institutional.

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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