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Originally published Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 6:02 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington's mental-health-care system needs resources, family input

The Washington Legislature should change the law so families are better able to help their loved ones with mental illness, writes guest columnist Martha Monfried. And lawmakers must not cut further a system that tries to help the mentally ill.

Special to The Times

My sister recently tried to kill herself by abandoning her car and jumping from the 520 bridge. I am grateful to those boaters and others who rescued her that day and everyone else who has repeatedly tried to help her. She was definitely not in her right mind and has suffered from mental illness for most of her life. As her physician said, "It's a terrible disease; I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

Not only is mental illness a terrible disease, the way we treat those who have it is insane. Our mental-health system is inadequate and current law makes it almost impossible for families to help their loved ones.

Only when they are an imminent danger to themselves or others can they be admitted to a hospital on a voluntary or involuntary basis. Even then, they generally receive care for a very short period of time: an involuntary 72-hour hold.

Courts then decide if they can receive more help as advocated by prosecutors and designated medical professionals or refuse treatment, which is their right as they are represented by appointed public defenders.

The hospitals become revolving doors without enough beds locally or at Western and Eastern State hospitals to help those who need longer-term care. It takes months, if not years, for the seriously mentally ill to get into the few community group homes in each county.

It also takes months, if not years, with determined help from someone like me, for them to qualify for state or federal assistance. All too often they end up homeless, dead or in jail.

Nationwide in the 1970s, there were 500,000 hospital beds for the mentally ill. Today, there are 50,000. A quarter of the 700,000 homeless on any given night in America suffer from serious mental illness. More than 2,300 inmates in Washington state prisons and about 300,000 nationwide are mentally ill.

Because my sister is currently mentally unable to make good decisions about treatment, it's unlikely she'll ever make any progress — and we fear she will eventually succeed in killing herself or will hurt someone and be incarcerated.

The current system has failed her. Since May 2009, she has been in most of King County's health facilities at least once. After racking up more than $100,000 in medical bills, we have still found no affordable live-in care facilities for her in the area.

There are some options to help my sister and others like her. One is to support Browning Communities in Seattle whose mission is to "provide structured, comprehensive and therapeutic living facilities in order to end the crisis of neglect, victimization, violence, abuse and homelessness for all chronically mentally ill." A year's treatment there is estimated to be $70,000. We can also donate to Sound Mental Health, the Overlake Hospital Foundation and Seattle's Union Gospel Mission.

At a minimum, the Legislature should act this session to allow families in Washington to petition the court to commit their loved ones who suffer from mental illness. Sadly, in view of Washington's budget crisis, advocacy groups like the state chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness are hoping only to preserve the inadequate system that exists.

We cannot afford to eliminate or restructure the general-assistance program, reduce the Medicaid rates paid to mental-health providers or cut the unrestricted state dollars supporting those with mental illness as proposed in this round of budget cuts. If we do, more people like my sister will end up dead, in prison or on the street.

Simply put, it is inhumane and uneconomic only to preserve or further block the revolving door of short hospital stays and inadequate follow-up support. We can and must do better.

Martha Monfried is director of corporate communications at Puget Sound Energy and lives in Bellevue.

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