The Tacoma News Tribune graciously agreed to publish an opinion piece an esteemed fellow psychiatrist and I wrote. I invite you to read the 500-word essay, Crisis care centers are important. But WA needs more to fill behavioral health gaps, directly through the newspaper (and show a local newspaper some appreciation through page views!). The piece has particular relevance to residents in King County in Washington State.
If you have more time and would like to read the original version, you can find it below. Thanks for your interest.
King County voters will decide whether to fund a network of crisis care centers in April. There are many reasons to support this: We all know people who have experienced behavioral health crises, including kids in school; colleagues at work; family members; and people we encounter in the community.
Because King County currently has only one crisis center, additional centers will help. However, the entire behavioral health system in Washington is in crisis. A narrow focus on these centers only may lead to even more people tumbling into crisis.
King County has explained that these five crisis centers will “provide a safe place… specifically designed, equipped and staffed for behavioral health urgent care. These Centers will provide immediate mental health and substance use treatment and promote long-term recovery.”
If crisis centers have the most resources, they will be the most robust and responsive element of the system. Outpatient clinics providing earlier intervention and prevention services are often understaffed and have waitlists. People already enrolled in these clinics may wait weeks to months for follow-up appointments. Those leaving hospitals also compete for clinic appointments. This excessive waiting can precipitate crises. People should not have to be in crisis to access care.
Crisis care centers are designed to accept anyone, with or without insurance. Many behavioral health clinics have insurance restrictions. Some clinics don’t accept public insurances like Medicaid or Medicare. Others do, though have limited funds to provide services for uninsured people or for those ineligible to obtain insurance. Such restrictions will funnel uninsured people to the crisis centers. Yet, where will they go for ongoing care?
Due to limited resources, crisis care centers must screen and triage referrals. If people experiencing symptoms related to mental illness or substance use don’t meet criteria for admission to a crisis center or a hospital, what then? If under-resourced outpatient clinics remain understaffed or close, these individuals will be forced to wait for treatment. Their symptoms may worsen, precipitating preventable crises, which no one wants.
The option for people to stay up to 14 days in a crisis care center can help people connect to ongoing services. However, many agencies are unable to see people and establish care within 14 days, in part due to what King County described as: “The behavioral health workforce is strained under the magnitude of the need, all while being underpaid, overworked, and stretched too thin.”
The levy touts the use of peer counselors in crisis centers. Peers with lived experience are valuable, though should not be the primary providers of care. Peer counselors often have the lowest wages and, in some for-profit models, make up the bulk of personnel, presumably to maximize revenue. Some people in crisis are among the most vulnerable, ill, and complex patients in the region. Both patients and staff across the entire continuum of care deserve sufficient support and resources to get, and stay, out of crisis. If people experiencing mental health crises receive insufficient services, they are more likely to fall back into crisis and return to these centers. If these crisis centers are operated by for-profit organizations, readmissions will increase their revenue. We have already witnessed this pattern in several for-profit psychiatric hospitals where patients experienced harm. Patients and their families deserve better.
King County needs crisis centers, but personnel in other parts of the system also need support. The levy notes that funding for residential treatment facilities will focus on capital and maintenance. Building conditions are important, though the staff who work in these buildings are just as valuable. Many individuals receive ongoing care in residential treatment facilities following acute hospital treatment. Supporting and retaining staff in these residential programs are vital in reducing behavioral health crises.
Outpatient clinics with robust funding for personnel, technology, and other resources, along with appropriate reimbursement of services—things that never happened after the original deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s—will help people access care. This, along with preventative efforts and early intervention at the first signs of behavioral health challenges, decreases crises.
Ultimately, supporting peoples’ basic needs will reduce the need for crisis centers. Living wages, affordable housing, access to food, universal health care coverage, employment opportunities, education and training, and building social connections, will reduce psychological burdens and promote wellness.
This levy should be viewed as an initial investment in improving our battered behavioral health care system. More needs to be done to improve the mental health of our friends, family, and neighbors.