This is a blog about my frustration as an unpaid journalist trying to get hard data about our mental health system. I believe it is failing, but I need factual data to back that up. Here is a synopsis of my attempts in the last two days.
I started by speaking to two firefighters at Safeway. They told me they get calls and simply take mentally ill people to local emergency rooms. Pierce County no longer has a crisis triage center so the ER is a first reponder's option now, according the firefighters.
Today I called St. Joseph's hospital in Tacoma to get some data on how many people are showing up the ER with mental health issues. I was not transferred to administration per my request, but to a charge nurse on the mental health unit. She laughed when I asked for numbers. She said the number of patients needing care is overwhelming. Staff try to limit stays to four days maximum but will hold patients if necessary over the four day limit. If a Mental Health Professional (MHP) is needed, it can take up to 24 hours for one to show up at the hospital. Imagine that. This could mean 24 consecutive hours in restraints for a patient and an overwhelmed staff trying to hold this person for their safety and well being as well as that of others.
The charge nurse said the hospital tries to employ the Least Restricive Alernatives (LRAs) for patients, but said resources have dried up for LRAs. Again, I have no data to back this statement up at this time. I then asked to speak to someone at Optum Health, the new coporate company based out of Minnesota that has taken over our county mental health system. Instead of adminstration, I was given to the actual crisis line. I tried to get off the crisis line as soon as possible since I was not a crisis. Still, the operator wanted my name. I have no idea why he wanted my name, but I gave it to him.
Then I called the main office at Optum Mental Health. The receptionist said I must talk to a Care Manager. I asked if there are any MHPs in the company. She said there are five. The county used to have 130 MHPs. They were laid off a couple of years ago. I asked her what is replacing MHPs. She told me Designated Mental Health Professionals (DMHPs) are replacing MHPs. The receptionist was not able to tell me how many DMHPs there are. I was transferred to a Care Mangager who said she could not speak to me per corporate policy. I had to call the Executive Director of Optum, the big corporation running our mental health system now.
I left a message for Cherie Dolezal, the executive director of Optum. Then I spoke to my wise friend who advised the following: make a public disclosure request from Optum and the county. However, make that request very specific as the more general the request, the less likely I will get a response.
Ask for Optum's initial proposal to the county for mental health services and then compare that to the actual contract that was signed by the county. Ask how long the request for public records will take. Research the state laws, or the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) dictating what laws must be followed by mental healthcare providers.
Take a look at the current budget versus the previous budget. According to a document I received from the county, 1.5 percent of the county budget goes to mental health care at the present time. Three percent goes to the parks, which is where I presume we are currently running mentally ill people away from. It makes one wonder where they are running to.
My next step is to find out how the local shelters are handling the overflow as well as the jail. We have no mental health court in Pierce County. Almost every county in the entire state has a mental health court. I wonder how many MHPs are in the jail or what kinds of services are being offered to inmates in accute episodes of a mental health crisis leading to arrest. I don't have these answers for you today, readers. However, with the help of Lois Lane and Superman, I might have them by next week. Or not. -Alison Whiteman