Reaching out to help the mentally ill: Project explores the importance of expanding human services on the Eastside

Last May, Leadership Eastside’s (LE) class of 2011 rolled out its community service projects including a challenge by Redmond Mayor John Marchione (LE class of ‘08) to examine the prevalence of mental illness in our midst and its direct impact on emergency responders such as Redmond Police and Fire. An LE team has studied how increasing Mental Health Court access on the Eastside can help individuals and families in crisis and subsequently, the greater community.

Leadership Eastside presented a panel discussion about the expansion of Mental Health Court resources and the need for more wrap-around services for mentally ill people in Redmond and surrounding communities

Last May, Leadership Eastside’s (LE) class of 2011 rolled out its community service projects including a challenge by Redmond Mayor John Marchione (LE class of ‘08) to examine the prevalence of mental illness in our midst and its direct impact on emergency responders such as Redmond Police and Fire.

An LE team has studied how increasing Mental Health Court access on the Eastside can help individuals and families in crisis and subsequently, the greater community.

Panelists at Redmond City Hall on Thursday morning, lauded the impending expansion of King County’s Mental Health Court to Eastside communities — which is expected to be fully implemented around July. They also spoke passionately of the needs for earlier intervention and more “wrap-around” services for people with mental illness, such as providing them with safe housing and follow-up to ensure that they are taking their prescribed medication.

The panel’s moderator was James Whitfield, a founding LE board member, former Region Director of Health and Human Services and current COO of NeuralIQ.

Also featured were King County Councilmember Jane Hague, Mental Health Court Judge Anne Harper and Paul Beatty, a board member of Redmond-based National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Eastside.

Whitfield broke the ice with a humorous story about a grizzly bear. But the mood at the LE mental health presentation quickly became somber as Whitfield described mental illness — and its devastating effects — as “a grizzly bear issue … a big, hairy issue to discuss and one that many people will try to ignore. But just like a grizzly bear, to ignore it is not going to make it go away.”

Harper spoke about the importance of “stabilizing the whole person” to keep those with mental illness out of jail.

Beatty described his painful experiences as the father of a mentally ill teen and the need to protect people who are “unable to defend themselves, to live up to their own expectations or to function in society, not temporarily but permanently, seven days a week.”

Said Beatty, “There is no college class that prepares you to help someone who is mentally ill.”

He called the Mental Health Court expansion to Eastside communities “the tip of the iceberg” and reiterated that more wrap-around services are critical.

Hague concurred, “Paul’s story is just one of thousands in King County — 5.5 percent of all Americans are affected by mental illness. … When you’re caught in the snare of the web, it is difficult to get free, it’s such an invisible disease. … We don’t have a comprehensive referral system. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The population served by the Mental Health Court includes people with severe and persistent mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder and Psychosis. They can be charged with any misdemeanor including DUI or domestic violence cases, must be amenable to treatment, competent to stand trial and voluntarily “opt in” to receive Mental Health Court resources.

Prior to the expansion of the program, only misdemeanor and felony reduction cases in unincorporated King County could be handled. Now services will be extended to all suburban jurisdictions.

In a question and answer period, Redmond City Councilmember Hank Margeson, who is also a member of the LE Class of 2011, asked about a correlation between mental health and drug dependency.

Hague said there is an absolute correlation because people who are troubled by mental illness will often self-medicate to try to ease their symptoms, only to become drug-dependent. This can lead to petty street crime, then more aggressive crime, especially among young people who have not been effectively diagnosed. She added that there are also strong correlations between early childhood experiences, such as sexual assault or domestic violence and long-lasting mental health issues — as well as genetic predispositions to mental illness.

Hague further cited the shortage of experienced mental health professionals and the fact that many — even with master’s degrees — are earning $15-17 an hour and handling exorbitant caseloads, leading to burnout.

In conclusion, Mike Rynas, president of the board of directors of NAMI Eastside, told attendees that their office at the Family Resource Center in Redmond holds 15-20 events each month and has support groups for both adults and kids with mental illness, which are “packed almost every night” and serve almost 3,500 people each year.

Members of the LE Mental Health Team were Karin Duval, community leader; Kate Butcher, Microsoft employee and president of the Kirkland Wednesday Market; Ramona Clifton, community leader; Arun Nisargand of The Boeing Company; Tim Sayers of Boeing; Paul Jensen of King County Library System; Pam Gill of Evergreen Hospital Medical Center; and Bill Goggins of Boeing.

For more information about Leadership Eastside, visit www.leadershipeastside.com.

For more information about NAMI Eastside, visit www.nami-eastside.org or call (425) 885-6264.

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