Washington is in the top five states with the highest prevalence of mental illness and the lowest rates of access to care for both adults and youth. When are we going to say enough is enough?

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IT is a tragedy when someone in the midst of a mental-health crisis ends up being killed by police. Unfortunately, it has become a common occurrence. It feels far more personal than usual — we lost Alex Dold, a sibling of one of our National Alliance on Mental Illness team members.

Alex was experiencing a mental-health crisis about 10 days ago, and his family called for help. But instead of getting him to a hospital, he died in police custody at the family’s Echo Lake home in Snohomish County after police used a Taser on him.

A human lost his life because we, as a society, have not addressed our health-care crisis and are using the criminal justice system as a stopgap measure.

‘My take’

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Alex, at 29, was a gentle giant, sweet and funny, with a soft spot for animals. He loved his family and dreamed of having a family and a home of his own one day.

It is easy to be angry at the police when a desperate call for help ends in a death — but the truth is, there are many contributing factors that created the system we have which leaves us with police as our first and last resort.

There is a reason that we are forced to rely on first responders during mental-health crises: Washington state ranks 48th in the country for mental-health services. We are facing a severe shortage of mental-health professionals. We don’t have enough inpatient beds for people who need them. Our involuntary treatment standard requires that someone be an imminent danger to themselves or someone else before there is any available mechanism to intervene and help them. We have criminalized mental illness and put people who are ill in jail.

Washington is in the top five states with the highest prevalence of mental illness and the lowest rates of access to care for both adults and youth. When are we going to say enough is enough? How many more lives must be lost?

Our crisis-oriented system relies on emergency responders and the criminal justice system to respond to people with acute mental-health symptoms. This approach is dramatically more expensive than funding comprehensive, community-based mental-health services.

This legislative session, we have heard over and over again that many Washington legislators support the need for more mental-health services and funding, but that because of the McCleary decision and the mandate to fully fund education, their options are limited. While funding may be a difficult problem to solve, real lives are at stake here. There is a human cost to the policy choices we make, and the way we are currently operating, those costs are just too high.