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Originally published January 22, 2015 at 4:23 PM | Page modified January 23, 2015 at 10:02 AM

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Mental-health reinforcement needed for the grief brigade

Lawmakers should listen to the grief brigade, families who have lost loved ones to untreated mental health crises. Columnist Jonathan Martin is not so sure they will.


Seattle Times Editorial

Times editorial columnist

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Gary Kennison has the stoic bearing and haircut of a veteran who served two tours in Iraq. But his toughest enlistment might be in the grief brigade. He joined other mourning parents in Olympia this week, begging the Legislature for a better mental-health system.

“The hardest thing you’ll ever have to do is sit in the living room and have to tell a 6-year-old and 9-year-old that Mommy and Daddy are never coming home,” Kennison said through clinched teeth.

The mommy was Kennison’s daughter, Sheena Henderson. Her husband, Chris Henderson, was twice evaluated as a suicide risk last year, once after he threatened to kill himself with a gun in his hand.

Instead of being detained for treatment, Henderson got his gun back after he promised he was not a risk to anyone. A day later, he killed Sheena as she was working in a Spokane hospital, and turned the gun on himself.

There are so many similar tales in Washington that they literally filled a hearing room at the state Capitol Monday. Sitting near Kennison were parents who saw their kids turned away from psychiatric treatment, only to fall to suicide, police officers’ bullets or further crises. This is the grief brigade.

This should be their year in Olympia because it was a terrible one for the mental-health system.

Washington’s system has been battered by court rulings blasting lack of patient access to psychiatric hospital beds. Just last month, an advocacy group ranked the state 48th in the nation for access to community-based services.

In response, Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal bumps mental-health spending by $513 million, a 27 percent increase. The Democratic-led state House hasn’t released its budget yet, but it is awash in policy and budget proposals.

Leaders in the Republican-led state Senate say they’ve gotten the message, too. In Seattle Times editorial board endorsement interviews this fall, I heard one lawmaker after another acknowledge the obvious problems. “We absolutely have to do more,” Republican Majority Leader state Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said recently.

But on the first test of that rhetoric — in a hearing over what’s known as “Joel’s Law” — I left Olympia Monday wondering how strong the commitment really was.

The law is named after Joel Reuter, a bright, beloved software programmer who lived on Capitol Hill. When he spun into a severe manic episode of bipolar disorder in 2013, Washington’s fractured mental-health system offered no cushion, despite pleadings from his parents and friends to have him involuntarily hospitalized.

Instead, Joel, believing he was fighting zombies, was killed by Seattle police. He was 28.

Joel’s Law would simply allow families to appeal to a judge if their loved one is denied involuntary commitment. Washington is one of just five states that doesn’t have that relief valve.

The bill is estimated to cost about $9 million a year because so many appeals would presumably be granted. Think about that: The higher the cost, the more it shows the relief valve is needed.

The House unanimously passed Joel’s Law last year, but it died in the Senate. So when state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, called a news conference on Monday before the first hearing of Joel’s Law, I showed up in Olympia with the grief brigade.

At the last minute, the news conference was canceled, for no apparent reason. O’Ban said there were “policy differences” that were being ironed out.

A few hours later, Joel’s parents, Doug and Nancy Reuter, appeared at a news conference in the House, where the bill has bipartisan support.

In the theater of Olympia, it was a telling moment.

Joel’s Law is a good start, but it’s just a baby step. Real fixes to the mental-health system are going to cost real money.

Rhetoric, however well meaning, isn’t enough. If nothing substantial is done this year, the grief brigade will only grow.

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com



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