State’s broken mental health system is creating tragedies

March 22, 2013 

Editor’s note: This is an expanded version of a letter to the editor that appears on The News Tribune’s letters blog: blog.thenewstribune. com/letters. Recent articles in the News Tribune have dramatically highlighted the revolving-door policy that my family and I are all too familiar with. The mental health system in Washington is in crisis.

Nearly five months ago my son, Jonathan, killed his father, Rob. My husband.

I will never be able to resolve in my heart the fact that my much-loved son was able to do such a horrible thing. I hold responsible members of the staff at Western State Hospital who deemed it safe for him to be released. They are responsible for my son now being alone and a pariah – and for the fact that Rob was forced to leave this life in the horror of knowing that one of his children hated him enough to kill him, even if it was because he was sick.

You see, after years of being in and out of mental institutions and jails for being involved in increasingly bizarre and dangerous behavior, Jonathan spent a year and a half bouncing back and forth between Western State and the Pierce County jail in connection with a charge of attempted murder.

As he was trying to steal a Jeep from a dealership in August 2010, one of the salesmen tried to block his way out of the parking lot, and Jon tried to run him over.

Jon was first sent to jail. After his arraignment, he was sent to Western State for a competency evaluation. In the forensic unit, he was on medication and received instruction to prepare him for trial. He was ultimately found incompetent to stand trial, and Western State prepared to release him into the community.

Fortunately, the prosecuting attorney’s office was notified. Jon was taken back into custody at the Pierce County jail, and the whole process started again.

This sequence of events was repeated twice. When he was found incompetent to stand trial for the third time, it was deemed unlikely that he would ever achieve competency. He was released to the civil side of Western State. It is here that he received treatment for the first time in more than a year.

Jon was fairly sure, up until he was released last January, that he was going to be committed for life. Instead, he was with no support system in place for him or us except for counseling sessions, a checkup once a month at Comprehensive Mental Health and a court order to get medication injections for six months.

The day that Jon had his arraignment for murdering his father, he was ordered to Western State for a competency evaluation. Even with his 10-year diagnosis of schizophrenia, it took more than two weeks before Western State had a bed for him.

He went to Western State last November. After two months, he was deemed competent to stand trial by Western State doctors. With that, he was sent back to jail, where he has remained for over two months.

His competency evaluation has been challenged by the defense counsel, so an outside evaluator has been called in for a second opinion. This evaluator will likely find Jon incompetent, and Jon will probably be returned to Western State.

Once there, his custodians can decide, at any time, that he is no longer a threat and should be released into the community again – unless a new law has been enacted to keep that from happening.

Our mental health system is a mess. There is currently not enough money in the system to take care of our most vulnerable and unpredictable citizens. It is up to each one of us to support dramatic change in this area.

Washington should not be at the bottom of the entire country in its support for the mentally ill. And a for-profit health company should not be in charge of caring for patients, especially when that company gets paid for emptying beds of the people that need it.

The Legislature is working on many bills that will improve conditions for the mentally ill and their families, as well as the community as a whole. Unfortunately, many of the bills that have been passed or will be passed in the near future do not have money behind them.

Please let your legislators know that you want to see mental health funding increase substantially, and that mental health institutions should use common sense when caring for their patients.

Kim M. Meline of Tacoma is a mother of five; she teaches math and science at Spanaway Middle School.

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