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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Mental Health Reform Focuses On Preventive Care

  OLYMPIA, Wash. – Health care advocates are pushing Washington state lawmakers to keep up momentum toward expanding access to Medicaid. About 100 people rallied on the Capitol steps in Olympia Thursday. They argue one group that will especially benefit is people with mental illness.

Inside the Capitol, that’s one of many issues related to the mentally ill. Several measures focus on broadening access to community mental health services as opposed to big institutions. The idea is to get help for mentally ill people before they get into trouble.

When Tracy Mellor shares her experience of living with bipolar disorder, many listeners are surprised.

“I’ll get people that come up to me after and say things like ‘You seem so normal’ or ‘You’re such a high-functioning bipolar.’”

Mellor went to college in California. She laughs as she tells me that her degree was in psychology. Her school psychologist diagnosed her, helped her get medicine and sent her on her way. These days, Mellor lives in Olympia and uses her own experiences to counsel other mentally ill people.

“I think being a peer counselor is really phenomenal because you might not have walked in that person’s shoes, but you have a unique appreciation for what they’re going through.”

Mellor also has an appreciation for the fact that the mental health services you receive depend on which county you live in. She works for a non-profit agency in Pierce County, but lives 30 minutes away in Thurston County.

Democratic state Sen. Karen Keiser introduced numerous bills this session involving mental health. She says many families of mentally ill people tell her the current county-based system is broken.

“Every county has a different set of rules and protocols and methods and it’s not sensible," Keiser says. "We need a state-level sense of what kind of protocols, what kind of outcomes, what kind of services should be offered to all Washington citizens who need them.”

One bill in the legislature would establish a task force to do a top-to-bottom review of Washington’s mental health system.

Right now much of the funding goes to two psychiatric hospitals. Brian Waiblinger is the medical director at Western State Hospital. He says very few people actually need to be committed for long. He says the state hospital staff’s main goal is to return patients to local programs.

“It’s a partnership, I think that’s the key idea here," Waiblinger explains. "There is a partnership that exists between community treatment and in-hospital treatment. That this should only be viewed as stepping stone for them to return to the community.”

Advocates for the mentally ill are not just trying to keep patients out of big institutions, the idea is to keep them out of jail too. Jane Beyer from the Department of Social and Health Services says the goal of this legislation is to get mentally ill people the services they need early enough to prevent a crisis in the first place.

“If we can keep mentally ill people from being arrested, there are savings in the criminal justice system," Beyer says. "If we can keep mentally ill people stable in their mental health treatment, we can avoid repeated visits to the emergency rooms.”

One reason lawmakers have more money to spend on mental health services is because the economy is doing better. Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal includes some money to help state hospital patients needing special care find housing after they leave. It’s been unfunded since 2005. Inslee wants to spend $1.5 million on it.

On the Web:

Gov. Inslee's budget priorities - Office of the Governor 
SB 5732: Assessing and expanding adult mental health care - Washington Legislature