Law enforcement officials, mental health experts, educators, parents and concerned citizens will come together at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, at Bellingham High School Auditorium for a public conversation on how we can help troubled young people and their families in communities throughout Whatcom County get the help they need.
Sponsored by Whatcom Counseling and Psychiatric Clinic, with support from Bellingham School District and The Bellingham Herald, this forum will be the beginning of what we hope to be a larger conversation about how to meet the needs of children, teens, young adults and their families who are experiencing mental health issues.
Words can hardly hold the sadness of the Sandy Hook elementary school killings. Many questions will likely remain unanswered. When we look back at events such as Sandy Hook, we often find young people who felt estranged, angry and without the attachments that would hold them back from such distorted acts of expression. In our age of networked social media, sometimes we forget how powerful it is to have an honest, face-to-face conversation. Humans will always desire connections, caring and someone who is truly a witness to our life. Whether the Newtown shooter had some underlying neuro-physiological issue or if it was the situational dynamics and alienation, he clearly didn't feel connected to his community.
So now we look at our strengths in Whatcom County, such as Boys and Girls Club, Catholic Community Services, Whatcom Counseling, access to waterways and mountains. And we look at our challenges, like Washington state cuts to mental health funding, shortages of mental health hospital beds, families dealing with drugs, poverty or violence. Fortunately, we in Whatcom County have a tradition of local action and local identity. We can commit to support certain community practices that lower the odds of tragedies such as Newtown.
I have been a practicing mental health professional locally for more than 20 years. I often tell people that if one family has a sit-down dinner four nights per week (with TV and cell phones off), and another near-identical family carries on without this new dinner practice, we can easily guess that there will be differences between these families in six months. It's the same with communities and our school, social and recreational programs, and health care services.
Washington state has been amongst the worst in the nation, cutting state mental health expenditures by 11 percent in fiscal year 2009-2011. These cuts have come at a time of recession, when demand for community mental health services went up by 55 percent nationwide. We can at least be proud that Whatcom County is one of 19 counties in Washington that have initiated a one-tenth of a penny sales tax to help support local, unfunded mental health needs. Whatcom County has been creative in helping to fund key evidence-based treatment and intervention programs as well as emergency services. It is known regionally and nationally as a place where people and institutions lead innovation.
When young people are disconnected from friends, family, school and community, they are at risk. If you are worried about a young person in your life, it's important to get them connected. It might be through school, sports, hobby groups, church, or volunteerism - but get them connected and get yourself connected. When people talk things out, they feel less invisible in their sadness or isolation. When we get to know people face to face, it keeps us grounded.
If you are worried about somebody and they just aren't opening up or getting engaged in community, get them some counseling. Please offer any support you can to our local charitable organizations addressing mental health. We do have services and if you are in need, folks will find a way to serve you. Hopefully, our elected representatives know that our state has already been a national leader in cuts to mental health services; a distinction we don't want to continue.
If you want to learn more about local services, please consider coming to the Bellingham High School auditorium at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 19 or visit whatcomcounseling.org.
Dennis Dashiell is a licensed mental health counselor and member of the Whatcom Counseling and Psychiatric Clinic Board of Directors.
Story comments in this section have been disabled to ensure the conversation is respectful and medical privacy is maintained.