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Spokane mayor proposes task force on mental health: ‘We really need to focus on the collective mental health of our community’

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 30, 2021

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward discusses Jubilant HollisterStier’s expansion Wednesday at the company’s operations at 3525 N. Regal St. in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward discusses Jubilant HollisterStier’s expansion Wednesday at the company’s operations at 3525 N. Regal St. in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Mayor Nadine Woodward plans to lead the formation of a regional task force on mental health in 2022.

The task force would aim to identify gaps and weaknesses in mental health care and build a regional consensus on what Spokane needs – and approach state leaders for funding to help fill those voids.

“We really need to focus on the collective mental health of our community, especially during the pandemic,” Woodward told The Spokesman-Review.

Woodward imagines that this task force would include elected leaders from across Spokane County, but also those with experience working in behavioral and mental health.

“It’s important to involve the professionals and the electeds,” Woodward said.

Demand for mental health services has spiked during the pandemic, and locally it has laid bare the gaps and existing components in need of further support.

The challenges brought on by the pandemic are expected to persist, according to the state Department of Health. In its most recent forecast of behavioral health impacts related to the pandemic last month, the Department of Health described a confluence of factors that could strain people’s mental health heading into the winter, including the uncertainty around new COVID-19 variants and returning to work in person.

The concept for a mental health task force was included in Woodward’s 2022 city budget proposal, although there is not a specific line detailing its cost, and its exact structure has yet to be determined. The budget still requires the approval of the Spokane City Council, which is expected to vote on it in December.

The new regional task force wouldn’t be the first time local health care leaders have come together to address behavioral and mental health needs.

Behavioral health was a component of the region’s multifaceted initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a task force on the topic formed and led out of the county’s Emergency Coordination Center.

But that task force’s focus was primarily on the COVID-19 pandemic and its immediate impacts on access to mental and behavioral health treatment.

For example, as many providers switched to telehealth or reduced in-person hours during the early stages of the pandemic, digital access became critical. The task force worked to secure a $63,000 donation from Spokane Teachers Credit Union to provide smartphones and a year of free service to clients of organizations including Frontier Behavioral Health, CHAS Health, Excelsior and Inland Northwest Behavioral Health.

The new regional task force envisioned by Woodward could be broader in its scope but build upon the work and relationships forged between providers and local leaders through the COVID-19 task force.

“I feel like it galvanized everyone because it put together a regular process of not just what people were seeing their patients were going through – whether it was substance abuse, domestic violence or mental health issues – it was an ongoing, regular dialogue,” said Dan Barth, the task force’s leader and director of business at Inland Northwest Behavioral Health.

Woodward expects the opportunities for improvements to the behavioral health care system to be numerous.

Woodward recalls learning – and being surprised by – the fact there is no licensed facility to provide overnight, inpatient treatment for a young child experiencing a severe mental health crisis in Spokane.

Inland Northwest Behavioral Health opened a similar unit for teens experiencing mental health emergencies last year, but it only takes patients as young as 13. The nearest option for younger kids is across the Idaho border at Kootenai Health’s Youth Acute Unit, but Inland Northwest Behavioral Health is looking to expand its services to include younger patients.

“Any time our leaders, especially our local leaders, look to create more resources for our community for the mentally ill, it’s very important, and we would support that 100% and see how we would come to the table and help,” said Rlynn Wickel, CEO of Inland Northwest Behavioral Health, a private psychiatric hospital in Spokane operated by Universal Health Services.

Wickel said COVID-19 impacted the mental health of the community because it damaged people financially and limited access to health care, including behavioral health treatment. The effects are particularly apparent in kids, many of whom were isolated at home as schools went online, according to Wickel.

Meanwhile, some resources have been harder to come by. Inland Northwest Behavioral Health is hoping to increase its beds, but its efforts have been hampered in part by the nursing shortage felt statewide.

“We’re all competing to try to utilize those resources, and when there’s not enough it limits the access for inpatient health care, and mental health is right there in the middle of it,” Wickel said.

There’s also a need for more mid-level treatment options, Wickel said, and the hospital is responding by expanding its intensive outpatient programs.

Both the staffing challenges and need for more treatment options predate the pandemic. For youth mental health treatment, the demand for services far surpasses the number of clinicians and resources available to kids and teens in the state.

Locally, many outpatient treatment programs have had long waitlists throughout the pandemic, meaning a patient might not have a step-down program to discharge to if they have been hospitalized.

Leaders and advocates in behavioral health organizations welcomed Woodward’s calls for collaboration.

Chauntelle Lieske stepped into the role of executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Spokane this summer. The organization’s volunteers, who have had experience with mental health issues directly or through family members, describe a “disjointed system,” Lieske said.

“This is such a huge system and touches so many different areas, that it seems like a task force would be a good idea to get people at the table,” Lieske said.

The Spokane Regional Health District doesn’t directly offer mental health programs, but it does serve people who need behavioral health care, according to spokesperson Kelli Hawkins.

“We welcome any effort to help our community address mental health issues, which as we know in turn improves the overall health of our community,” Hawkins said. “Our goal is to promote healthy lifestyles, as well as detect and prevent and respond to diseases.”

Spokesman-Review reporter Arielle Dreher contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Nov. 30, 2021 to correct the owner of Inland Northwest Behavioral Health. The hospital is owned by Universal Health Services, not United Health Services. 

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