Its nothing new: horror stories about people whose mental illnesses turned them into killers; a safety net that failed to catch them; and now, politicians in Olympia vowing to do something.
Theres suddenly a lot of movement, and its sad that its taken a series of catastrophic tragedies to start addressing this, but its a catalyst, said Larry Thompson, a therapist at Western State Hospital in Lakewood who said hes more hopeful for change than he has been in years. Maybe the iceberg that has been funding for mental health is starting to thaw and break apart.
Momentum does seem to be building for action on mental health. But state lawmakers still havent paid the bill from the last time they acted.
That was in 2010, when they voted unanimously to make it easier to detain potentially dangerous people for treatment of mental illness.
The new standards would have allowed more consideration of a patients past behavior for what is known as an involuntary commitment, which now requires some kind of immediate threat or danger. But cost estimates pushed lawmakers to postpone most of those changes until mid-2015.
Were seeing the impacts of that. The amount of mentally ill in the jails just awaiting evaluation has skyrocketed, Thompson said. So many mentally ill inmates have crowded the Pierce County Jail, many while awaiting a Western State Hospital evaluation, that corrections officers are piling up overtime.
The system is probably as broken as Ive ever seen it in 40 years, said Thompson, a member of the Washington Federation of State Employees union who has worked in the mental health field since his days in the Air Force at the age of 18.
Similar sentiments accompanied the 2010 law, inspired by the New Years Eve 2007 stabbing death of Shannon Harps in Seattle and a 2008 shooting spree in Skagit County that left a sheriffs deputy and five others dead.
This time around, the cases include a sleeping father in Tacoma slain with a hatchet, allegedly by his son; a Key Peninsula market shooting, allegedly by a woman who told detectives she wanted to try killing others before she committed suicide; and much farther away in Connecticut, the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
BOTTOM OF STATE RANKINGS
Sen. Karen Keiser, a Kent Democrat, introduced a proposal Senate Bill 5480 Thursday to put the more expansive standards for involuntary commitments into effect next January.
Lawmakers will have to find money to do that or even to start preparing for the July 2015 date, as former Gov. Chris Gregoire called for in her budget.
And money is hard to come by as the Legislature grapples with a shortfall approaching $1 billion and calls for devoting another billion or so to schools to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling. Similar shortfalls in past years have led to cuts that have closed wards at Western State and shrunk options for less restrictive treatment.
The number of state-hospital beds for civilly committed patients as a share of the states population has declined by a third over the past 11 years, according to the Legislatures nonpartisan staff, which said space for patients coming from the criminal system has actually stayed roughly steady.
In the private hospitals where many patients go first, Washingtons number of psychiatric beds per person in 2009 trailed 46 other states, according to American Hospital Association rankings cited in a state-commissioned study. It is generally believed that the shortage of beds in those community treatment programs is contributing to the surge in mentally ill inmates at jails.