Feeling the Cuts: A Stabbing Highlights Our Mental Health Failings

From Seattle Weekly’s Pioneer Square office, you can see where 46-year-old college English professor Troy Wolff and his partner Kristin Ito were repeatedly stabbed Friday night. Wolff succumbed to his serious injuries Saturday, while as of this writing Ito was still hospitalized.

After being read his Miranda rights, suspected attacker 44-year-old Donnell Jackson told detectives that he suffers from schizophrenia and that “the victim was a member of a group that was trying to kill him.”  The police report classifies the suspected attacker as a “total stranger” to the two victims, who were heading to the light-rail station after Friday’s Sounders game when the assault occurred.

The fatal stabbing came just one month after a mentally ill Martin Duckworth—who shared an address with Jackson at Pioneer Square’s Compass Housing Alliance—opened fire on an Metro bus, wounding the driver before he was killed by police. Is this the new normal? Stats showing a swelling rank of homeless and mentally ill people in downtown as millions of dollars are cut for mental-health care suggest a troubling answer.

As figures from the King County Mental Health Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services Division illustrate, funding for mental-health services throughout the state have taken a beating from Olympia in the aftermath of the Great Recession. As a briefing paper from the agency explains it, “Since 2009, there have been significant reductions in funding for community mental-health services, while involuntary commitments have increased substantially.”

How bad has it been? Starting four years ago, budget cuts in the state legislature have led to the elimination of 90 beds from Western State Hospital. Another 31 beds were lost at the Program for Adaptive Living Skills, a facility on the campus of Western State Hospital that was forced to close because of the cuts, but which used to houses people with histories of violence, sex offenses, and noncompliance with treatment plans—in other words, the last people you want roaming the streets at night.

Here’s a breakdown of the statewide cuts:

• The 2009 state biennial budget slashed Medicaid funding for mental-health services by 3.4 percent—or $12.2 million per year.

• The same budget took a 9 percent swipe at non-Medicaid funding, to the tune of $11.6 million per year.

• The 2011 budget cut another $13 million per year in Medicaid and non-Medicaid funding.

• A 2011 supplemental budget enacted a one-time mental-health funding cut of $12.6 million.

According to Amnon Shoenfeld of King County Mental Health Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services, all the cuts result in a loss for King County of $11 million in Medicaid funding and $18.6 million in non-Medicaid funding over the past four years.

As Shoenfeld tells it, the non-Medicaid funding cuts may be the most problematic. In King County this funding has been used almost entirely to pay for inpatient hospitalization, King County’s evaluation and treatment facility, involuntary commitment services, residential services and crisis services. Since cuts started in 2009, Shoenfeld says King County Regional Support Network has been forced to make significant cuts to services. It has fewer respite and hospital diversion beds for people suffering mental crises. It has fewer resource to go out on the streets to find homeless people who need mental health care. Long-term treatment, specialized treatment for severe cases and Medicaid personal care have also been slashed.

“You can see we’re hurting,” says Shoenfeld. “The cuts get felt.”

The results of this struggle play out acutely in the state’s most populous county and especially on Seattle’s streets. As Seattle Police West Precinct Captain Jim Dermody told Seattle Weekly for a story on homelessness and street disorder earlier this year, the bulk of King County’s social services are located within four square miles of downtown. “Seattle is a service-rich city,” Dermody said at the time, noting that this concentration of social services leads to the inevitable: a disproportionate population of people who need help calling Seattle’s streets home. In Pioneer Square, the phenomenon is particularly apparent. According to numbers provided by the Alliance for Pioneer Square, roughly 1,200 of the neighborhood’s 2,100 residents are in a shelter bed or some form of transitional housing.

“When they cut mental health and housing, there’s not a neighborhood in the state that feels it more than downtown Seattle,” Vice President of the Downtown Seattle Association Jon Scholes told the Seattle Times this week.

On Monday, reacting to the deadly stabbing and in full-campaign mode, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn didn’t mince words, saying “We aren’t going to wait on Olympia, ” while calling on city businesses to identify a new funding source for mental-health treatment beds. (McGinn’s mayoral challenger, state Sen. Ed Murray, has spent a lot of time in Olympia as you may have heard.)

It’s a nice thought; local businesses coming together to support mental health would be an admirable start.

Unfortunately the problem is likely bigger than that.

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