The mental health backlog in Washington takes time and money

What happens if the police arrest someone who is going through a mental crisis? How long will it take for that person to get the help they need? It should be in two weeks, but for many, the answer to that question turns out to be months.

According to Seattle Times reporter Esmy Jimenez, nearly 900 people in Washington state are awaiting competency evaluation or recovery treatment, which is necessary before they can go to court. Recovery treatment can often include medication, classes, or therapy.

“Many of them have a history of serious mental illness, substance use, and sometimes even a mental or developmental disability,” says Jimenez, who covers mental health for The Seattle Times.

The other thing that stood out in her recent reporting was the amount of money imposed on Washington state — between $500 and $1,500 a day when mental health services are delayed, the result of a class action lawsuit.

So far that’s $98 million since 2018 for not actually getting people services,” Jimenez said.

Listen to KNKX All Things Consider, host Emil Moffat’s conversation with Jimenez, above, or read select quotes below.

Key learning points:

You recently profiled a person who lives this reality. Tell us about Joshua Marsh.

JIMENEZ: Joshua Marsh is a 40-year-old man from Grays Harbor County. I first heard about him because there was an incident I found in police files. Essentially what happened in January, he was found outside a local grocery store. He wore no shoes and he had no coat, even though it was the middle of winter. And the grocery store officials asked him to leave. He didn’t leave. The police were called twice and they eventually arrested him. He also resisted arrest and was eventually charged with assaulting police officers. But what was also interesting to me was that he had to wait a total of eight months in the Grays Harbor County Jail to get this mental health care.

Why are these waiting times so long and what is being done to help these people get services?

JIMENEZ: One of the things that happens is there are so many people trying to get through the system at once. There are only a limited number of beds that are physically available in each of these hospitals for someone. It’s causing this huge backup and it’s just a glitch. And what happens is that officers have to triage. They say, okay, ‘who is the sickest or most acute people waiting in jail? Let’s get those people in first.’ In the case of Joshua Marsh. He was nowhere near as ill as some of the other defendants. It meant that he waited much, much longer. The Department of Social and Health Services adds that they are also understaffed. They have had to employ travel nurses in the state hospitals to keep staffing levels up. Prisons say they are also having problems retaining their staff. And then, of course, the COVID-19 virus has contributed in part to all of this as well.

This has become a source of frustration not only for those in crisis, but also for lawyers and judges, right?

JIMENEZ: Last month I sat in King County Superior Court and listened to Judge Johanna Bender. She was so frustrated with DSHS officials. You could really see it because judges have the job of balancing this very difficult thing, which is to maintain public safety and then not release people who are at high risk of recidivism, while also being very aware of it are that these defendants have not been found guilty right? There hasn’t even been a trial, in which case that amounts to unlawful detention, which is the issue that has been challenged here in the past.

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