Making progress in behavioral health

As winter sets in and the generous spirit of Christmas seems to transform us, perhaps you are like me and want to do something more than just buy a cup of hot cocoa for that mentally ill woman who hovers near your favorite coffee shop, or sleeps in an alcove near your workplace, isolated and hard to reach because of her disorienting condition. As you hand her a warm cup and a sandwich, and try to say something to connect on a human level, you feel powerless.  Can anything be done to ease her burden and address the cruel mental illness or substance addiction that creates tough barriers to getting needed help?

While we have a long way to go, Pierce County has invested in a variety of programs to help the mentally ill and those suffering from behavioral health challenges.

Last fall, the County launched a new mobile crisis intervention unit that seeks out the seriously mentally ill where they live.  Recently, I had the chance to ride along with this team. One woman they helped that day was a “familiar face,” which is to say she has called 911 literally hundreds of times for non-emergencies and was a high utilizer of first responders’ services.  The crisis team, from Comprehensive Life Resources, was working hard to cultivate a relationship with her so that she would feel comfortable calling them instead. You would have been impressed with the crisis team’s patience and compassion.

The County is also making a major investment in a different kind of crisis care for the seriously mentally ill. When someone is experiencing a crisis, often they need to be taken to a safe place where their condition can be stabilized and mental health care professionals can shape a treatment plan and link them to a long-term provider.   The Council appropriated funds in the 2018 budget to help build a 16-bed facility in the Parkland/Spanaway area of Pierce County. Although there is already a similar facility in Fife, it is too far for many first responders.   EMT and law enforcement personnel, as well as the mobile crisis team, will take clients to the new crisis facility to get the care they need, which will free up first responders to get back on the road and deal with public safety and medical emergencies.

Mental health services are also a vital component in our criminal justice system.  The County is investing in a new program to place trained mental health care professionals, or co-responders, with sheriff’s deputies who will respond as a team to 911 calls that involve potential crimes by individuals with a suspected mental illness. The deputies can assess the public safety risk while co-responders determine whether the individual causing the disturbance is suffering from a behavioral health condition.  The team can then decide if the individual should be charged or transported to a crisis stabilization facility.

With the help of a nearly $2 million grant to the County from the proceeds of a lawsuit filed against Washington state, new services will be provided in our court system to divert the behaviorally ill charged with non-violent crimes from the judicial system and get the care they need. These services should free up the courts to address criminal cases involving violent offenders and others accused of serious crimes.

In another exciting development, the construction of a new behavioral health care facility at Allenmore Hospital will add up to 120 beds and treat 5,000 patients per year.  The facility is a joint venture of Multicare Health System and CHI-Franciscan Health and will have a significant impact on providing care for the mentally ill and those suffering from substance use disorder.  The County’s funds are helping build the hospital, which is expected to open in 2018.

This is the time of year we especially want to help the most vulnerable in our community. It’s encouraging to know Pierce County is taking new steps to help those who need it most.


Steve O’Ban is Senior Counsel for Behavioral Health.