Washington had three state mental health hospitals: Western State in Steilacoom, Northern State in Sedro-Woolley and Eastern State in Medical Lake. Clallam and Jefferson counties were served by Northern State Hospital near Sedro-Woolley, which opened in 1912 covering 1,200 acres.
The institution housed up to 2,700 patients from Northwest Washington. Patients received vocational training at the farm, dairy, printing plant and greenhouse and they manufactured posts, which made the hospital largely self-sufficient.
Eastern State Hospital opened in 1891 and housed nearly 2,300 patients; today only 287 beds are available. Western State Hospital also opened in 1891 and today operates with just 823 beds, down from its peak of more 2,600 patients.
Washington faces another budget crisis today, reminiscent of the budget challenge that Gov. Dan Evans faced, which resulted in his 1973 closure of Northern State Hospital.
Today we have traded housing, training and medical care for pills, homelessness and victimization.
According to the National Association of Counties, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, individuals with mental illness were released from state-run hospitals often without alternative placement.
Many became victims of crime or committed repeat nonviolent crimes, which led to incarceration, release from jail and a cycle of recidivism.
By default, jails have become the primary source of care for the mentally ill, a function that jails are neither equipped nor designed to handle.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill estimates that 25-40 percent of the mentally ill today will come in contact with the criminal justice system for one reason or another.
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict has witnessed this challenge in our own community. He estimates that about a third of the inmate population in the Clallam County Jail has serious mental health issues.
Benedict said since the jail provides mental health treatment and medication, most inmates are well-behaved.
The problem comes when they are released. They seldom keep taking medication; rather they self-medicate with alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine or other substances and soon are re-arrested.
The Los Angeles County Jail has been described as the largest psychiatric hospital in
the country, with more than 22,000 inmates; up to 14,000 of its inmates are estimated to be suffering from mental health issues.
A recent Federal Bureau of Prison Statistics report estimates that 64 percent of jail inmates nationwide suffer from significant mental health problems. A 1999 study estimated the percentage of mentally ill inmates in prison populations to be just 16 percent.
The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report estimates that more than a million individuals suffering from significant mental illness are in jails and prisons today.
In 1955, there were about 550,000 patients in state psychiatric hospitals across the U.S. Today, that number is 60,000. That’s not because a cure has reduced the volume of mental illness in America.
According to Benedict, law enforcement and the mental health community often work at cross purposes, to the detriment of public safety. He points to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which limits the release of medical records.
Those regulations as interpreted by our local mental health providers (Peninsula Mental Health), according to Benedict, require a court order for medical information to be given to law enforcement when it comes to involuntary mental commitments.
Benedict described cooperation between law enforcement and the mental health community as somewhat strained because of a fundamental difference in their respective charters. He states that the sheriff’s office is focused on public safety and favors arrest, detention and commitment of individuals whose actions are criminal and/or dangerously irrational.
Law enforcement personnel, while trained in many aspects of human behavior, are not licensed mental health providers; what they see and report to mental health professionals may not be interpreted the same way.
Benedict says that often a deputy is still filling out a report when the person he brought in for observation is released back onto the street. Benedict related a local Sequim case.
About two years ago the Sheriff’s Office conducted an eviction in Sequim with the assistance of Sequim Police officers. The evictee, Benedict said, was clearly unbalanced, made threatening statements to police and neighbors and had lots of guns.
Benedict said, “We arrested him and then (held him for a mental health evaluation) and took his guns for safekeeping. Peninsula Mental Health evaluated and released him; he pled guilty to the trespass and wanted his guns back.
“PMH would not talk to me about the case other than to say he was entitled to his guns because he had not been institutionalized for 14 or more days” (the Washington state standard for revoking gun rights).
Benedict said he told the individual that unless he had a Superior Court judge order him (as sheriff), in open court to return the guns, he would not return the guns to him.
“It has been two years; I still have the guns and the mentally unstable, in my opinion, owner has not gone to court to ask for them,” said Benedict.
Benedict thinks the law requiring a minimum of a 14-day commitment before gun rights are forfeited should be changed to just requiring the detention of a person for a mental health evaluation under the Washington Involuntary Treatment Act and a hearing to determine if the results warrant forfeiture.
Someone who felt wrongly deprived always could appeal the decision by going to court, getting a mental competency exam and having a court order the release of the guns.
President Obama did leave one especially important quote ringing in the air at the memorial service following the Tucson shootings when he talked about the youngest murder victim, Christina-Taylor Green, age 9.
“I want us to live up to her expectations.
I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. … All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
Robert Spinks is former Sequim chief of police. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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