Washington’s mental health care system is broken and a full repair job will require more money, more beds and additional treatment options.
Unfortunately, a major government overhaul is not on the immediate horizon.
There are, however, several proposals making their way through the Legislature in a patchwork attempt to provide more protection to the public and to those headed for a mental health crisis.
Two would provide families more ways to get their mentally ill loved one committed and in treatment, another would make it easier to take guns away from people who are at risk of hurting themselves or others. Another bill would make it legal for hospitals to keep mentally ill patients temporarily if they have nowhere else to go.
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All these steps could lead to more mentally ill people getting help and staying safe. Those opposed to these ideas are balking at adding to the workload of mental health professionals and hospitals without providing additional funding. Others are concerned about limiting individual rights.
But Washington’s history in the mental health care arena is dismal, and the status quo is unacceptable. Mental Health America, a national mental health advocacy group based in Virginia, recently ranked states on how easy it was for the mentally ill to get care. Washington placed 48th for adults and 47th for youths.
If the small changes being proposed this legislative session can make a difference, they need to be implemented. If they require funding, then they need to be funded.
Two would tweak the Involuntary Treatment Act, which now requires a mentally ill person to be in the middle of a crisis before being able to be detained. Many families can tell when a loved one is headed in a downward spiral. They should not have to wait until a tragedy is imminent before their relatives meet the criteria for an involuntary commitment.
In tandem with this is a bill allowing families to ask a judge to intervene if a mental health care counselor won’t involuntarily commit a loved one they believe is headed for violent breakdown. The time to provide treatment is before patients become dangerous to themselves or others, not afterward. If a mental health counselor is not responsive to their concerns, families should have another option.
They also should have an easier time of keeping guns away from their loved ones who are mentally ill and threatening violence. Gun rights advocates are concerned about this idea, but a lot of lives could be saved if guns stay out of the hands of the unstable.
And as for mentally ill patients who end up in hospitals, if they have nowhere to go it should not be illegal for the hospital to keep them there until there is a safe place for them to be moved. Keeping them in a hospital bed without treatment is unfortunate and sad, but sending them out alone on the street is worse.
Washington has a long way to go in fixing its mental health care system and these proposals are a piecemeal approach, but they’re a start. At the moment, they are the best we have.