Opinion editorial: Addressing Washington’s mental health shortfalls (Rep. Maureen Walsh)

By Rep. Maureen Walsh

Joel Reuter. Aaron Ybarra. Ian Stawicki. These are just some of the names of individuals who have suffered with mental illness in our state. They also all threatened to or did inflict serious harm on themselves or others as a result of their mental illnesses. News reports throughout the state have recently documented the poor condition of Washington’s mental health system. This session, there have been a number of bipartisan efforts to improve our mental health system and provide individuals and families with better paths forward.

In August 2014, the state Supreme Court issued a decision calling attention to the improper “boarding” of mentally ill individuals, and inadequate treatment provided to mentally ill patients. In response to this ruling, the Legislature successfully passed an early action supplemental budget that increases the number of mental health treatment beds in hospitals. That budget was signed by the governor earlier this session.

And then there’s Joel’s Law – Senate Bill 5269. Joel Reuter was a software engineer in Seattle who struggled with bipolar disorder. In the summer of 2013, Joel was fatally shot by police after experiencing a severe episode with his disorder. Joel had been discharged from the hospital just weeks prior to the incident, and his parents had attempted on multiple occasions to have their son committed. The response they received when they were told they couldn’t submit their son for involuntary commitment was disturbing;  Joel would have to be on the verge of being a serious threat to himself or others, putting law enforcement in an impossible position of either harming Joel or risking the safety of the public.

Joel’s parents live in Texas but traveled to Olympia on numerous occasions to advocate for legislation to improve our mental health system.  Their love for their son and a selfless desire to never see another family have to endure the pain they feel is remarkable.

I joined many of my colleagues in the Legislature in passing Senate Bill 5269, or Joel’s Law. This bill will expand family access to the courts by empowering families of the mentally ill who pose a serious threat to themselves or others to petition the courts for involuntary commitment. The House passed the measure 92-5.

Our state’s mental health system is complex, involving the legal system, law enforcement, hospitals, and the corrections system. Joel’s Law is a positive step toward correcting many of the shortfalls of our broken mental health system. As lawmakers, one of our top priorities is to help protect our most vulnerable individuals and work to provide the necessary services they need. So far, we have done a disservice to our mentally ill and their families, and we have work to do to fix the mistakes of the past. I look forward to working with my legislative colleagues on solutions that best serve our individuals with mental illness.

###

Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, is the ranking member on the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee in the Washington State Legislature.