Our Voice: Lawmakers starting to fix mental health care problems

State lawmakers have mended several pieces of Washington’s broken mental health care system with various bills that offer a fix to certain, glaring problems.

And while these patches are necessary and helpful, they are not enough to fully repair a system that has been failing for years.

Washington has been ranked among the worst in the country when it comes to providing access to mental health services. But little by little, perhaps that will change.

Piece-meal progress is, after all, still progress.

One of the most significant improvements that came out of the main legislative session came from two heartbroken parents. Doug and Nancy Reuter wanted a change in law so family members could pursue involuntary treatment options for a relative they fear is on the verge of a violent breakdown.

Joel’s Law is named for their son who was shot and killed in a standoff with Seattle police in 2013. His parents said he was suicidal at the time and they had tried repeatedly before-hand to get him into treatment, but were refused and left helpless.

With the new law, families can seek treatment for a relative by going to a Superior Court judge and asking for a court order. This, at least, gives families some recourse if a mental health counselor is not responsive to their concerns.

Family members can see the early warning signs and should not have to wait until a loved one is in crisis before seeking help. They also should have options if treatment is refused.

Another mental health care change approved this year is designed to improve conditions and cut wait time for mentally ill people taken into custody. And another new law requires health professionals to receive training in suicide assessment and treatment.

Combined, these changes appear to be for the better, and they are a good start. But the momentum must continue if the state is truly going to help people who are mentally ill.

We offer a suggestion for another need that lawmakers and mental health care advocates should address — long-term housing.

Like many diseases, it can take time for people to conquer a mental illness. Among one of the most pressing concerns in our community is finding more permanent homes for mentally ill people transitioning into society, according to officials at Lourdes Health Network.

In Benton and Franklin counties, there is a terrible need for housing for people who need more than a year in their treatment programs. These people are fragile, but could live independently if they had enough time and support.

However, finding suitable homes for such patients is difficult, and this is the case in communities around the state, not just in the Mid-Columbia.

So perhaps long-term housing could be included in the priority list the Legislature tackles next year when it once again discusses mental health care issues.

Washington lawmakers made some great strides in addressing certain problems, but there are still improvements to be made.

Perhaps with enough patches, the system eventually won’t be so broken.