Mental health for decades has proven a vexing national issue; an estimated 10 million people live with a serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Washington state is no exception; in fact, in many ways this state stands out as an example of how not to address the problem.
A 2016 report by Mental Health America, a national nonprofit group, rated the 50 states and Washington, D.C., on 15 measures and found Washington ranked 50th — second to last — on getting care to those who need it. A federal judge last year held the state in contempt of court over providing timely services to mentally ill defendants. This came two years after the state Supreme Court ruled that boarding psychiatric patients temporarily in hospital emergency rooms and acute care centers, due to lack of room at psychiatric treatment facilities, is unlawful.
There are approaches that help those who need it, and one Yakima County program shows particular promise with mentally ill individuals who run afoul of the law. Superior Court’s Mental Health Court, which has been operating for three years, aims to help defendants find stability in their lives through efforts such as dealing with substance abuse, finding the right medications, reconnecting with family and friends, and eventually contributing to society through work or attending school.
That’s a lot to offer, and the numbers remain relatively small. The county says 26 defendants have gone through the program with seven currently enrolled. What is missing — at least for now — are hard numbers on recidivism rates, though a probation officer does regularly search to see if court graduates have committed new offenses. Those recidivism numbers would be useful, now that the program has a three-year track record, in gauging the long-term effectiveness of the program.
Advocates do have a point when they say that numbers themselves don’t tell a complete story about how well the program is doing. They cite personal narratives — testimonials, really — of participants who have re-established connections with family, friends and society. There’s no doubt that those connections are critical to ensuring the long-term success of both the individuals and the program. At the same time, quantifying the success — through the tracking of recidivism rates — is also important for evaluating the program.
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