State must give higher priority to mentally ill

June 19, 2013 

Why such tragedies as the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting? Answers posed include lack of gun control, violent video games, evil minds and improper upbringing. (One writer even blamed parents for not teaching their children respect for life!)

But often, severe mental illness as the cause is perceived as some sort of catch-all term that “justifies” horrendous acts. The reason? A lack of understanding of this enigma called mental illness.

Not as clearly defined as a physical injury (we can see a broken leg but not a broken mind), severe mental illness can wear the mask of a developmental disability, the consequences of drug or alcohol abuse, traumatic brain injury, PTSD or a genetically induced affliction. But unlike a physical injury that primarily affects the victim, a broken mind torments not only the one afflicted, but can leave indescribable pain in the path of those whose loved ones’ innocent deaths or injuries have sprung out of that broken mind.

Tragically, a genuinely mentally ill person who is criminally minded often lands in prison where he might languish in an overcrowded system for years without treatment for his illness.

In the words of Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim, “The reality is we have not prioritized mental health care as a society.”

This continuing dilemma is not new: During the ’80s, then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said that there were two mental institutions in Los Angeles, one of them being Cabrillo Mental Hospital and the other the streets, “where my police officers are their caretakers.”

What can be done? Mental health issues must be taken to the legislative level. Immediate involuntary admission to mental health facilities must be made possible by family members or friends who believe their loved one is a threat to others. Currently, that decision can only be made by a mental health professional.

Secondly, monies must be provided to increase the presence and continuation of those facilities. When Northern State Hospital had to be shut down in 1973 due to state budget cuts, their patients were put on a bus and let out in downtown Seattle with no prior arrangements.

You think that couldn’t happen today? How about the hundreds of mentally ill who, over the past five years, have been shipped to various cities out of Nevada, again with no living arrangements made in advance. San Francisco’s director of Behavior Health Services called it “patient dumping.”

We in Washington state are fortunate that Gov. Jay Inslee’s compassion and understanding has made him aware of the need for changes in our mental health system. We must give him all the support that we can.

Karen Strand is an advocate for the needs of the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. She is an active member of Action DD (www.ActionDD.org) and may be reached at her website www.karenstrand.com.

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