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New Mental Health Crisis Facility To Serve King County

Patricia Murphy

High–profile violent incidents involving the mentally ill often grab headlines. But in reality, most people living with mental illness don't act out in such extreme ways.

Last year designated mental health providers from King County Crisis Commitment Services provided outreach more than 6,000 people.

On August 6, King County is opening a new facility in South Seattle's Jackson Place neighborhood. It could be a more appropriate and cost effective solution.


The disturbance call comes in to Seattle Police. A woman is screaming in an apartment building. She goes on about gang members and meth labs, about being persecuted by the security guards. The woman is clearly in distress.

These kinds of calls present a particular challenge for Seattle Police officers like Dan Nelson. As part of SPD's Crisis Intervention Team, Nelson has undergone special training; he works alongside a mental health professional to help de–escalate situations like this.

Nelson says first responders have few options that offer an effective solution for the mentally ill.

Nelson: "It doesn't do anybody any good if someone keeps getting booked for the same trespassing charge over and over again and they're not getting their mental health needs met. Because it's just going to be a rotating door, and it's going to cost a bunch of money, and it's just going to keep going on. So, at some point we have to figure out how we're going to get this behavior to stop."

The screaming woman was eventually taken to the emergency room. But now there's another less costly option that may be appropriate in situations like this. The Crisis Solutions Center (CSC) will give first responders in King County an alternative to emergency rooms and jail.

Hobson: "We're hoping that it's going to be a more humane and therapeutically beneficial opportunity for folks that find themselves in a behavioral health crisis."

Bill Hobson is the executive director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center which runs the CSC. He says people will be referred through police, medics and county mental health providers. In some cases clients will come from emergency rooms if they don't require hospitalization.

Hobson: "Crisis institutions, like ERs and jails, are simply there to resolve the crisis; they don't dig in with the individual to discover the precipitance of the crisis."

That's where CSC can help.

Hobson says people coming into the center will be stabilized by a team of mental health providers and nurse practitioners for up to 72 hours. After that they're offered care for a week or two in a so–called step down unit.

By treating 3,600 people a year at the facility, the county estimates it will save more than $1 million.

Homelessness and substance abuse are significant problems for a good percentage of the county's mentally ill. That can lead to petty crime.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says it costs around $300 a day to keep an inmate in the psychiatric ward of the county jail. He says they're often kept for weeks while lawyers debate their competency to stand trial — that's also expensive. Satterberg says diverting some of these cases to the Crisis Solutions Center makes sense morally and fiscally.

Satterberg: "People aren't going to be forced to come here, but they're going to have a choice between going to jail, which is something most of them know something about, and coming into a place that's warm and dry where they'll be offered some soup and a shower and a change of clothes."

It may be the first time they've received mental heal and drug treatment.

Staff will also work to help them try and find housing. As is often the case though, the need for housing far surpasses availability. Many will go to shelters.

For some it may be a fresh start.

For others, Satterberg says their future may be less clear.

Satterberg: "The next step of long–term transitional housing for mentally ill people is a very difficult one. They may return to the streets, but if they do they'll have been diagnosed, they'll have been stabilized, they'll be part of our record keeping system so, if they come back, we'll know who they are and what they need."

The Crisis Solutions Center has a total of 46 beds; 16 for crisis management and 30 for transitional care. It's funded by a 1 tenth of 1 percent (.001) sales tax passed by the County Council in 2007.

The opening was delayed for about a year after neighbors in Jackson Place sued over concerns about security and property values. Earlier this year the suit was dismissed.

I'm Patricia Murphy, KUOW News.

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