Civic Agenda: Whatcom County offers mental health services

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 19, 2013 

Whatcom County imposed an increase to the local sales tax of 1/10 of 1 percent (that's one penny for every $10) in 2009. The purpose of the additional monies, approximately $3 million annually, was to expand and enhance programs and services to address mental illness and addiction. The county introduced this resource with the keen awareness that untreated mental illness and addiction, also known as behavioral health disorders, impact all of us. The health department's Human Services Division administers these funds under the direction of the county executive.

Statistics show that approximately one in five people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The good news is that treatment for mental illness works! People living with serious and persistent mental illness lead productive and fulfilling lives as contributing members of their communities. When provided with timely and effective interventions, those symptoms can be managed.

Left untreated, these disorders of the brain create excessive medical costs, poor employment and broken families. And, the criminal justice system can become overwhelmed by excessive contacts with unstable individuals who will never achieve stability without treatment. Arrests and incarceration only prolong the disease. Recovery is a possibility for everyone experiencing a behavioral health disorder - and every community benefits when recovery is realized.

A focus on diverting people away from the criminal justice system toward more appropriate and effective treatment was highlighted as a priority in funding. Another priority was to intervene early in the treatment of behavioral health disorders in order to reduce less effective and more costly emergency services. Focusing additional attention on the behavioral health of our youth was a necessity, knowing that our future is them. Studies have shown that a child's brain growth and development can be compromised by adverse childhood experiences. On the bright side, children's brains develop optimally when they grow up in healthy, nurturing and inspiring environments. Clearly, we needed to pave the way for maximizing these experiences for our youth. So, planning ensued to build the programs and services that would offer these opportunities.

Whatcom County's Human Services Division also works with an advisory committee of community members who provide guidance and oversight of these funds and the priorities of service. The launch of these new and enhanced services began in 2010. Since their inception, more than 9,000 Whatcom residents have received services.

Five full-time human services staff, program specialists, work in the division, led by the human services manager. Three of these staff members dedicate a portion of their time to the oversight of these particular programs. They have expertise and training in mental health, chemical dependency, homeless housing, criminal justice and health promotion. In preparation for delivering programs to our community, these specialists assess needs, design programs to address them and then work with community providers to implement the ongoing services while providing quality assurance and oversight to ensure that high-quality services are effective and sustainable. The programs and services are varied, but connected to one another to ensure an integrated system of care.

The county has contracted with community partners to provide the programs, thus reducing cost while also investing in our community's economy.

Some of our programs and the community partners that provide them:

The Community Support and Education program works with the local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, offering support groups and monthly educational forums open to the community.

The Nurse Family Partnership, based in the health department, works with first-time mothers-to-be with the goal of teaching and supporting them to raise healthy children in nurturing and safe homes.

Another program delivered by the Whatcom Family & Community Network is called Healthy Communities and focuses on building a connection between youth and their community in positive ways so that involvement in gangs or problematic behaviors is greatly reduced.

The county also works closely with our seven school districts to implement various behavioral health programs in schools. The services are provided either by specialized school staff or Catholic Community Services. During the first few years of these programs, more than 3,000 students and their families have been helped, addressing depression, drug and alcohol use and dangerous behaviors. By helping kids and their families in their local community, we have been able to expand their access to services. They no longer need to travel to the "city" to get the support they need.

Mental health and substance abuse treatment services are provided by Catholic Community Services in our juvenile court and detention center. These critical treatment services help youth turn their lives around before criminal behavior becomes a pattern. Whatcom Counseling & Psychiatric Clinic provides these services in our jail. Mental health professionals work with inmates who have a mental illness, connecting them to critical treatment services in the community upon release to help achieve recovery and lessen their chances of returning to jail.

No Whatcom County resident needs to forego necessary mental health or chemical dependency treatment just because they have no insurance to pay for it. The Behavioral Health Access Program, fondly known as "B-HAP," provides confidential mental health treatment to all ages. Licensed mental health professionals are located county-wide to provide free or low-cost counseling. Three agencies also provide B-HAP services under contract with the county: Interfaith Community Health Center, Sea Mar Counseling Services and Whatcom Counseling & Psychiatric Clinic. If you, or someone you know, need treatment but worry you can't pay for it - don't worry! You may call the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement and ask for a referral to a clinician. In the last year alone, more than 500 Whatcom County residents received these services.

Recovery support services promote the ongoing recovery of individuals living with mental illness and/or addiction. We have contracted with Whatcom Counseling & Psychiatric Clinic to operate the Rainbow Recovery Center in downtown Bellingham, which offers peer support and recovery activities for adults living with serious mental illness. Stable housing is also a critical component of recovery and we partner with Lake Whatcom Treatment Center, Pioneer Human Services, SUN Community Services and the Opportunity Council/Whatcom Homeless Service Center to connect people to stable housing.

In Whatcom County, we have made a purposeful investment to ensure that access to those necessary services is available to residents, especially those most vulnerable. Resources are available and accessible to anyone in need of help and support. If you have questions about how to access them please call the Public Health Department 360-676-6724 or the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement at 360-788-6594 for B-HAP services.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anne Deacon is human services manager for Whatcom County. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or jlouws@co.whatcom.wa.us.

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