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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.

In Our View: State’s mental health care office holds promise

The Columbian
Published: May 24, 2023, 6:03am

Mental health issues have become the catch-all excuse for many problems plaguing American society. Whether it is mass shootings or an increase in opioid overdoses or a rise in homelessness, pundits often are quick to blame mental health and a lack of services.

Indeed, mental health issues contribute to those scourges, and those issues have been exacerbated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The question then becomes, what are we going to do about it?

In Washington, an Office of Behavioral Health Advocacy was launched in October as a result of House Bill 1086, which the Legislature unanimously passed in 2021. Sponsor Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, said at the time that the idea was to “identify systemic issues that are going on in our behavioral health system.”

That means working with people who need care and directing them to appropriate services, as well as demanding accountability from public and private providers. As one local advocate told The Columbian in January: “I have both lived and professional experience in the field. As a peer, you have been through the system as well. So you understand what people might be going through when somebody’s trying to advocate for themselves to get the services that they need. That mutual understanding . . . opens up the door for empathy.”

The new office is part of a continuing strategy to rethink mental health services in Washington. The 2023-25 budget passed last month by the Legislature includes $957 million in behavioral health investments, including efforts to improve crisis response, prevent crises from occurring and increase the mental health workforce. It also increases funding for the 988 crisis line that was launched last year.

“This year we had the most robust behavioral health budget that the state has ever done,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond. “Those are the investments that are going to pay dividends.”

Ensuring those dividends will require not only investment but a rethinking of Washington’s mental health system. Improved treatment for those in the beginning stages of crisis is an important step; so is effective service for those facing severe conditions that pose a threat to themselves or to others.

More psychiatric beds are needed, and jails and emergency rooms should not be viewed as a way station for patients who require intensive treatment.

The issue is not exclusive to Washington. And data demonstrate the vast differences in how states are approaching mental health care.

According to a study from American Addiction Centers, Washington spends $128 per capita on mental health services, more than 31 other states. But the range is extraordinary — Maine spends $363 per state resident; Florida and Idaho spend $36 per capita.

Demonstrating the politicization of the issue, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has routinely blamed mental health for mass shootings. Critics have claimed that he cut the state’s budget for mental health services, but that money was replaced through federal pandemic funds.

Spending is not the most important measure. Systems that are easily accessible and effective are more important than dollar amounts. In that regard, the Office of Behavioral Advocacy bears watching. If it seamlessly points patients toward beneficial services and proves to be an effective watchdog over a broad and vitally important system, it will be an investment that helps all Washington residents.