The family of Ian Stawicki, the man who went on a deadly shooting spree in Seattle on Wednesday, say they could not get him help for his mental illness.

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If Ian Stawicki was as ill as his family says, how come he wasn’t forced to undergo involuntary mental-health treatment?

It’s a question being asked in the wake of Wednesday’s shootings. But people familiar with the mental-health system say it’s not so simple as it may seem. Especially in Washington.

Every month between 1,500 and 2,000 people are evaluated by mental-health professionals under the state’s Involuntary Treatment Act, (ITA) which allows for a person with a psychiatric illness to be detained in a hospital for treatment.

Under the ITA, a person must present an imminent threat to him- or herself or others, or be “gravely disabled.” In about two-thirds of cases where patients are mentally ill enough to be brought in for evaluation, they are sent home because they don’t meet the criteria.

“It’s a very steep hill to climb,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said of the level of evidence required to hold someone.

The key word is “imminent.” That means a specific threat, against a specific target, that can be carried out immediately.

“We’ve had cases where a general homicidal ideation is not sufficient,” Satterberg said. “Grave disability” is also a high threshold to meet, he said.

Families with mentally ill loved ones have long believed the bar is too high, said Farrell Adrian, president of National Alliance of Mental Illness Washington, a support group for families of people with mental illness.

Over and over, she’s heard stories of families taking the momentous step of requesting an evaluation for their loved one, only to be told he or she is not dangerous or disabled enough.

“Our response is largely inadequate to help families in crisis,” Satterberg said.

There’s a second hurdle in Washington: a shortage of beds. A 2006 survey showed Washington ranked 47th among the states in the number of psychiatric beds per capita.

Satterberg calls the result a failure of government.

The Legislature in 2010 amended the ITA to make it easier to detain a patient for involuntary treatment. The change was supposed to take effect this year, however, it was placed on hold due to budget constraints.

Reporter Jonathan Martin contributed to this story. Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or