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Originally published Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 3:58 PM

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Editorial: In Yakima Valley, and statewide, a deficit of mental-health care

The Legislature responded to a crisis in the state mental health system in a bipartisan way. More needs to be done.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE lower Yakima Valley, home to vibrant agriculture and producer of world-class wines, is also home to poverty and deep need. A state analysis, using data showing higher-than-average rates of mental-health problems, estimated the lower valley needs 26 dedicated beds for psychiatric care. It has zero.

That’s a familiar story around the state. In the past decade, the state lost more than 200 community psychiatric beds, causing Washington to fall to 49th in the nation in access for this critical treatment. The predictable result: Very sick patients suffered. Hospital emergency rooms became de facto way stations for psychiatric patients with nowhere else to go. It continues to be a crisis.

But that is slowly changing. Sunnyside Community Hospital is preparing to build a 10-bed psychiatric unit, the only such hospital ward in the lower Yakima Valley. In January, it won a $1.3 million state grant. And although that’s less than half the construction cost, the hospital is moving ahead to help fill a gap in much-needed mental-health care.

There are similar encouraging signs around the state. In the past two legislative sessions, a strong bipartisan commitment to better mental-health care has spurred plans for other facilities in King, Pierce and Thurston counties. More money was spent on intensive outreach teams intended to avert hospitalization, particularly in King County.

A checklist of bills and funding requests by Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, shows broad, steady progress. Train more police to de-escalate crises involving mentally ill suspects: check. A new law to integrate mental health and chemical dependency: check. More resources to community mental-health care: check.

More work remains to be done. The Legislature in March denied the impassioned requests of Doug and Nancy Reuter, parents of a Seattle software engineer who was shot by police during an episode of untreated psychosis. Their proposal — allowing a judge to review denial of psychiatric commitments — is such good policy that 45 other states already have it in some form.

The past two sessions show that better mental-health care is not a partisan issue. It is a core function of government. The Legislature deserves thanks for responding to a crisis, and a nudge to keep going.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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