Our Voice: Lourdes' new mental health triage center good start to big problem

For years, this community has been trying to figure out how to care for our mentally ill. Our current system has glaring gaps.

The new triage facility coming to Lourdes Counseling Center in Richland next year is a step in the right direction.

It won't solve the problem, which is complex and multi-layered, but it's a good start. And it fills an unmet need in the Mid-Columbia.

The first-of-its-kind center will be able to give patients help before their breakdown reaches a full-blown crisis. It also will help patients transition after hospitalization. It potentially will help with early intervention.

It offers step-up and step-down assistance and makes the leap not so far.

The center also will consult with law enforcement and local mental health providers -- key components of an integrated system.

If it's successful -- and we have no reason to think otherwise -- perhaps it will serve as a model for the consolidated crisis response center that we still will need.

In a dream world, there would be plenty of resources for the ill (physically, mentally and emotionally). And we would treat each other with respect and compassion.

And we would be able to differentiate between substance abuse and self-medication. And we would not relegate the mentally ill to our penal system.

There also would be adequate funding for drug and mental health courts and a consolidated crisis response center.

But we don't live in a perfect world.

And too often those who need mental health services are warehoused in our jails.

Benton County's time-for-fines program illustrates how that can be detrimental to some with mental illness and to the community.

While the program has some merits, especially the piece that allows convicts to work off their fines, it seems counter-productive to lock up nonpayers at the taxpayers' expense, especially when those convicts are in need of mental health services and too ill to deal with their fines.

Let's be clear: Not all criminals are mentally ill and not everyone with a mental illness turns to crime. The two conditions are not interchangeable.

There definitely is some overlap. There is also quite a bit of misdiagnosis or no diagnosis at all.

Inadequate mental health funding is one of Washington's hallmarks. As a state, we're second from the bottom in beds per capita for psychiatric care.

We can't keep ignoring the problem or locking it away.