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David Coffey Op-Ed

Below is an Op-Ed that our Executive Director, David Coffey, submitted to the Seattle Times in August. The Seattle Times ran a longer piece on the role of the government in addressing the broken mental health system by an expert from the Washington Policy Center, Roger Stark. The article can be found here.  Mr. Coffey’s response highlighted the potential for the larger community to help. So while our Op-Ed wasn’t published we thought you might appreciate it, especially because it highlights the role that we all can play in addressing our broken mental health system.

On July 13th, the Seattle Times Editorial Page urged Governor Inslee and the State Legislature to reform our failing state Mental Health System. The Seattle Times has been full of stories about Western State Hospital, patient boarding, and judicial battles. Addressing this problem will require additional funding, and a person-centered compassionate approach.

At Recovery Café, we witness the brokenness of our system every day when people who should be receiving much more intensive support come to our doors because they have nowhere else to go. People we have sent to the hospital are released quickly as soon as they are deemed not an immediate danger to themselves or others. One of the most soul searing conversations in my career happened recently when a colleague shared that she had no good options to refer two severely mentally ill homeless women to, so she was praying for them daily. She is praying especially hard for one woman because she is not as “street savvy” and therefore more vulnerable on the streets at night. As a father, I wonder, if something happens to me and one of my daughters develops an acute mental illness (one in four Washington residents will experience a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their life,) would it be possible that she could be on the streets with her best protection being how “street savvy” she is?

Our inability as a State to respond to the needs of our sisters and brothers, our children, who struggle with mental illness forces people in the most vulnerable situations to pay the price. While my heart breaks at our failure as a community to adequately address this crisis, I am also more hopeful than I have ever been.

We are at the precipice for a momentous leap forward in care. As a country, our awareness about the need for better mental health services has reached new heights. As the stigma around mental illness is broken down, more people are willing to share their own experiences (among major diseases, only cardiovascular disease affects more people). We are putting a human face on an American tragedy.  At the national level the House recently passed the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, and there are other bills before Congress that also need to be passed, including the Excellence in Mental Health Act and the Mental Health First Aid Act. Locally, the Community Alternatives to Boarding Task Force has identified several excellent strategies.

Katherine Switz, the Co-founder of Many Minds (manyminds.org) makes the tremendous case that the great news is that mental health treatment works!  We can effectively treat this illness. Her work is one of the most inspiring signs that we can bring together the best people, resources and momentum to make significant change. Jim Vollendroff, the Director of King County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, and his team are another encouraging sign.They have an energy and a dedication to address this crisis that I wish every public official would emulate. Their work to leverage the resources provided by Best Starts for Kids and the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency Levy is truly exciting.

We each have a role we can play in improving our community’s mental health. As mentioned in a recent article, Navos has a model that works but they have to turn people away due to insufficient funding. In the same article Governor Inslee’s spokesperson said he “may call for more funding in his next budget proposal.” This shouldn’t be a maybe, but rather a definitive course of action.  Our elected officials at every level need to hear from us that addressing this need should be a top priority (there is an excellent opportunity to do this here: kingcounty.gov/legislativeforum). In addition, Mental Health First Aid classes abound in Seattle (mentalhealthfirstaid.org), and I encourage you to take one. If you are a person of faith, I sincerely ask you to add to your prayer list the plight of those who are suffering from untreated mental health challenges (we are the second worst state in the country for adults with mental illness reporting unmet need). Finally, there are many organizations working in the field (Recovery Café is one) that would be thrilled to have you as a volunteer. My mentor, Killian Noe, wrote in her book Descent Into Love, “If we are loving our neighbors deeply enough, we will be drawn into helping dismantle systems that oppress and exclude those we’ve come to love.” The time for our community to become a model for the whole world is now; I hope you will join us.