February 2015 Bar Bulletin
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February 2015 Bar Bulletin

Fixing Washington's Mental Health Crisis

By Mark Cooke


Washington's mental health system is in crisis. Individuals are not receiving adequate mental health care in the community, in large part due to chronic underfunding of public services.

This lack of resources compounds the problems faced by people with mental illness and causes increased state expenses. Individuals struggle with inadequate mental health care until they suffer a crisis and end up cycling through emergency rooms and jails, often being isolated and detained for unlawful periods of time.

The long-term solution is to invest in proven prevention, intervention and recovery services in the community. This should be the State's top priority as it moves to reform public mental health systems. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that when state treatment professionals determine that community placement is appropriate, persons with mental illness should be treated in community settings rather than in institutions.1

This approach also is reflected in state law. For example, RCW 71.05.010 provides, "whenever appropriate, that services be provided within the community." Similarly, as stated in RCW 71.24.015, the intent behind the State's Community Mental Health Program is to "help people experiencing mental illness to retain a respected and productive position in the community. This will be accomplished through programs that focus on resilience and recovery."

Mental health experts agree that jail cells and chaotic emergency rooms are not therapeutic environments. These options should only be used as a last resort. Nevertheless, our state, like so many others, has come to rely on the criminal justice system and hospital emergency rooms to cope with what is fundamentally a public health issue. That reliance has landed our state in court.

Two high-profile lawsuits illustrate some of the most pressing problems with our mental health system.

In A.B. v. DSHS, a federal court in December found that persistent delays in providing competency evaluation and restoration services to pre-trial detainees in jail violates due process rights. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of individuals who have experienced lengthy delays in receiving these court-ordered services in state criminal cases.

A trial to determine a remedy is set to begin on March 16. Plaintiffs are represented by ACLU-WA. Staff attorneys Sarah Dunne, La Rond Baker and Margaret Chen are handling the case, along with attorneys for Disability Rights Washington, the Public Defender Association, and Carney Gillespie Isitt PLLP.

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