The mental health system isn’t broken; it just needs more attention

May 16, 2018

May is National Mental Health Month: a time to recognize the importance of mental health care in our communities and raise awareness about mental health conditions. In Washington State, this also means raising awareness of the challenges our mental health care system faces, and the initiatives that can address them. Mental health remains one of WSHA’s top legislative priorities, and although we are steadily making progress, the system still needs work.

Washington State still ranks disappointingly low on per-capita access to mental health beds, and treatment can take patients across the state, far away from friends and family. Because Western and Eastern State hospitals are operating at capacity, patients who need long-term treatment are unable to leave community hospital psychiatric units. This creates a backlog for new patients seeking mental health care from hospital psychiatric units that are also at capacity. Consequently, many people spend more time than they should in psychiatric distress in hospital emergency departments, getting neither the peace nor the intensive treatment they need.

There are challenges on the other side as well, when many patients are discharged from inpatient psychiatric hospitals — both state hospitals and our own member hospitals — without proper shelter or community support. It’s no wonder that many of them crash and end up living on the street.

Some might say our mental health system is broken. We don’t. Saying this means it isn’t worth working on. We are committed to working on it. The mental health system needs more resources and attention to ensure our residents are taken care of. We need more places for residents to get care closer to home. We need to ensure patients have access to “step down” facilities after mental health commitments to help them transition back into daily activities. We need a better continuum of care that fills in the gaps between outpatient and inpatient treatment – things like partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient treatment. We need a viable way to connect patients with care in a timely manner.

We are proud of the things we’ve achieved, most notably capital funding for mental health that is leading to increased capacity, Certificate of Need flexibility and Medicaid payment for integrated care. We are also proud of members’ efforts toward mental health solutions, such as the innovative partnership at Smokey Point. WSHA will continue to advocate for and secure concrete solutions for this essential component of health.

Cassie Sauer
WSHA President & CEO


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