Washington state is facing a crisis when it comes to providing beds for psychiatric care. On a per capita basis, according to a 2009 national report, Washington ranks at the very bottom.
When beds are unavailable at psychiatric hospitals and regional mental health providers, hospital emergency rooms are often a last resort. Mental health advocates say this is a huge problem, because in some cases, mentally ill people are housed in emergency rooms for months, without access to sufficient treatment.
Seattle Times reporter Brian Rosenthal has been looking into some of the problems plaguing mental health care here in Washington. He told The Record's Ross Reynolds on Tuesday that the economic downturn had a big impact on access to services:
During the recession, we cut 250 beds at our state hospitals: Eastern State and Western State, which is 25 percent of the beds there. At the same time, our hospitals have seen that they can make more money treating patients with cardiac problems or other medical problems. So they're cutting their own psychiatric beds. At the same time, we've made it easier to commit patients. And those two factors together have created a crunch on the system.
Some mental health advocates say the state is in a full blown crisis when it comes to caring for mentally ill people. Among them is Sandi Ando. She is the public policy committee chair for the National Alliance of Mental Illness, Washington. She says when there aren't enough beds for mental health treatment, people can end up in the wrong places.
Our jails and prisons start filling up with folks with mental illnesses. When we're living a crisis-driven system where people don't get help until they are in crisis, we drive people right up to the edge of the cliff before we start helping them. And almost by definition, some of them are going to fall off.
Ando is pushing for change in state policy. She supports legislation that would increase funding for intense outpatient programs.
Some folks can perform perfectly well out in the community, so long as they get the supporting services they need. But that does mean we have to invest some money in those kinds of supports and services so that people can get that care. They can't be expected to come to stability on there own.