Ignore the mentally ill at our peril

Opinion editorial from the Daily Astorian, September 12 2008

Shabby patchwork of safety nets makes law officers and counselors intervenors

Last week’s horrific deadly attacks in Skagit County, Wash., are a prime example of how America fails to help many mentally ill people while also protecting society from the rare few who are truly dangerous.

The six Skagit victims were very nearly preceded by two more in similar circumstances just across the Columbia River in Ocean Park, Wash., where on Aug. 28 a deranged man attempted to slash the throat of a customer standing at an ATM machine before also stabbing the customer’s son.

Although Oregon’s laws differ somewhat from Washington’s, the basic outlines of this issue are much the same across the nation. With a health care system perpetually teetering on the brink of failure for even the most understandable of physical ailments, those suffering complex and scary mental illnesses are poorly served by a shabby patchwork of safety nets.

Far too often, law officers end up in the awful position of being the front-line counselors and intervenors for people who have been tossed back out on the streets by the revolving doors of our faulty mental-health systems. In Skagit County, this cost a deputy her life.

All this is not for want of funding. An analysis of Washington state spending by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found Washington spends at least $1.8 billion a year dealing with various aspects of mental illness. But of that staggering sum, more than two-thirds ends up being spent on prisons, police, homeless shelters and other social services. These essentially only clean up some of the mess left by our failure to keep people out of crisis in the first place.

Here are just a few of ways in which we fail the mentally ill and ourselves:

• Although a lot of serious illnesses begin in young adulthood, this is just when many lose access to their parents’ insurance coverage. All Americans deserve health coverage at every age, insurance that equally covers physical and mental ailments. Early and consistent intervention is key to minimizing the harsh damage caused by ever-more-intense cycles of psychosis.

• Privacy rules are too restrictive, shutting the door on family participation in the treatment of loved ones. In Washington, this situation is made worse by laws that don’t allow families or family doctors to make involuntarily commitments. This is left up to a small cadre of overworked county-designated mental health professionals.

• Programs and state funds must be retargeted toward giving sufferers decent and well-supervised long-term community housing. This will keep the sickest patients out of trouble, giving them a fair shot at having reasonably full and rewarding lives.

• States should fund many more beds for people experiencing mental crises once they are swept up in the criminal justice system. There is now a wrenching shortage of such facilities.

America prides itself on being the best nation on earth. Taking better care of our most vulnerable citizens would go a fair distance toward making this boast a reality. Doing that would improve all our lives.