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Clark County to become 1st to build closer-to-home mental health facilities

Clark County is set to become one of the first places to demonstrate Washington’s expanded treatment plans for people in the midst of mental health crises.

The state’s capital budget, recently passed by the Legislature, carves out $37.7 million to build a 48-bed campus in the county for people whom judges determine are not fit to stand trial.

With funding in place, officials said the building will be constructed near Washington State University’s Vancouver campus. Officials said it could open in spring 2023.

The campus will be comprised of three 16-bed facilities, at least one of which will be run by the state. The campus will operate much like one of Washington’s state hospitals — but closer to the homes of people who are receiving treatment. Officials said that’s the point of the expansion.

“It solves the problem of isolating the person away from their community,” Dr. Brian Waiblinger, chief medical officer of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

For years, judges have sent people with mental illnesses to the state’s two hospitals in Pierce and Spokane counties. The latter, which is the state’s largest hospital, has long made headlines for questions over safety and patient care.

Since 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee has signaled his intention to close the civil commitment beds at the state hospital as part of a bigger plan to spread that responsibility to smaller, regional facilities like the one now slated to open in Clark County.

Besides the new allocation, the state had already set aside $20 million to start the Clark County project. The total price tag of the campus is estimated to be $57.7 million.

Waiblinger said the scattered buildings will keep people closer to friends, family and other forms of support. He said the benefit is two-fold because it makes it easier for people to visit someone civilly committed and eases re-entry when a person’s civil commitment is over.

“In order to treat individuals, it’s best to treat them near their support, where their family can come visit them easily (and) where they can look at housing or group homes where they may eventually live when they’re discharged,” Waiblinger said.

The facility would only work with people involuntarily committed. In Washington, civil courts or mental health systems can commit a person whose illness renders them a danger to themselves or others.

Keeping a person in a familiar area as they recover from a crisis is vital, said Kim Schneiderman, executive director of the southwest Washington offices of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Very rarely do we see someone in a constant state of high psychosis,” Schneiderman said. “We have to acknowledge that some people, at least for a period of time, need a safe place to regather themselves and learn to work on their recovery.”

Eastern State Hospital, near Spokane, has 192 civil commitment beds. Western State Hospital in Lakewood has 467.

According to the Department of Social and Health Services, the agency picked Clark County “due to the lack of … civil commitment beds and evaluation and treatment facilities.”

The county’s population growth in recent years — Vancouver grew at the second-fastest rate statewide between 2019 and 2020 — and its relative distance from state facilities were also factors, Waiblinger noted.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Troy Brynelson