Take Two # 80: Mental Health in Washington State

Kyra-lin Hom

Before anything else, I need to make a correction to last week's column. Based on the statistics that currently 1 in 5 high school-age boys and 1 in 11 high school-age girls in the US are medically diagnosed with ADHD, I said that a high school with a student population of 2,000 would have 580 students diagnosed with ADHD. That was wrong. My statistics forgot that gender is mutually exclusive. The actual number of students that would be diagnosed out of 2,000 is approximately 290.

The irony of this happening right after I wrote a column on the benefits of understanding mathematics is not lost on me. For those who are interested:

My original calculations: (1/5)(2000) + (1/11)(2000) = approximately 580
New calculations: (1/5)(1000 boys) + (1/11)(1000 girls) = approximately 290

Though not the original massive figure of 580 students, 290 is still definitely not a figure to be dismissed. That breaks down to an average of 4.64 high school students diagnosed with ADHD per class room.

Remember that the US holds ADHD to be a biological-neurological disorder while France instead views it as a psycho-social problem (i.e. a psychological problem caused by social stress)? A more in depth study of ADHD in the US shows that both income and family stability are correlated with ADHD in children. Unstable families, single parents and living below the poverty line all tend to be connected with higher rates of ADHD. It's just a little something to think about.

For the future, if anyone catches me using outdated information or interpreting the facts incorrectly, please let me know. Writing for the public eye does wonderful things for one's sense of humility, let me tell you. Though I think my worst editorial mistake ever was as part of the literary magazine team at my high school. Somehow, every single one of us missed that auto-correct had added an extra “e” onto the word “rap” in a student's poem. Yup, it was published that way. We all felt terrible – and terribly embarrassed. The worst thing was, it was actually a very good poem, a rare thing to find in high schools these days. Stupid extra “e.”

Forgive me if I seem a bit verbose. This has been a very quiet week for me, literally. Having been football tackled by laryngitis, I have spent the last six – six! - days without so much as a peep for a voice. I can't even use a phone! I think I'm going crazy. Irritatingly fitting as I had intended on discussing our local mental health services.

A rumor has been circulating about Seattle that the recent increase in violence, crime and general delinquency is due to sequester-caused cuts to our mental health services. The rumor whispers that institutions and hospitals have had to release a large number of unfit patients because there is no longer any means to care for them. Is there any truth to this? I'm not actually sure – this is where not being able to make a phone call is seriously impeding.

What is true? Despite recent gun issues having put mental health on the political map, the sequester did plan to make a wide cut in health related spending, including mental health, emergency response and substance abuse services. There was a torrential media storm leading up to the impending April 1st doomsday. And then nothing. I assume the deadline passed and everyone just went, “Well... shoot.” So if it happened, this round of sequester cuts did indeed involve the elimination of mental health care for a conservative estimate of 373,000 people nationwide. That is 7,460 per each of the 50 states.

But that is just on the federal level. Setting the sequester aside, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Washington State alone cut its mental health budget by just under 17% from 2009 to 2012. That's a cut of $52.5 million. Yet our state didn't even make the top ten list. The ten states that did are starting to feel the burn. That is where you'll find the media's attention focused on mental health.

Another bit of truth is that Washington does not have sufficient resources to care for its mentally ill. This lands many of those patients and the involuntarily committed in hospitals and ER's that don't have the space. These patients are often left secured to beds and chairs in the hallways in a practice known as “boarding.” Those patients who don't have anywhere to go and no one to care for them eventually find themselves either on the streets or in prison.

Mental health budget cuts? Check. Limited mental and behavioral health resources? Check. Negative stigma about the mentally ill? Check – wait, what? This rumor reveals an assumption that individuals with mental illnesses are dangers to civilized society. That blanket statement is hardly inherently true. Let's face it, if we fail this hard as a community to take care of those who need it, how civilized are we?

Here's another way to look at it. Whether it's for properly run institutions, overworked hospitals, prisons or emergency response and law enforcement (both suffering their own budget cuts), tax payers are footing the bill. It's just a suggestion, but maybe we should put the money where it's most effective.

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