State counts 300,000 mentally ill

Benjamin Shors -
Spokesman-Review Staff writer


Olympia, WA - A state study found that nearly 300,000 Washington residents have a serious mental illness, twice as many people as previously estimated.

The study, released Wednesday by the state's Mental Health Division, for the first time took into account children, the homeless and those in institutions -- populations previously excluded.

Children, whom some clinicians balk at diagnosing with mental illness, represent one in three people in the study. The report classified 106,000 children as having a serious emotional disturbance.

Another 190,000 adults have a mental illness so severe it limits their life activities, requires treatment or poses a danger to the person or others. The estimates are based on surveys of households, jails and other institutions.

The new study updates figures from a 1998 study that found only about half as many people -- 157,000 -- suffered from a serious mental illness. But that study did not include children, among others.

"The current study gives us a much broader picture," said Tom Sykes, head of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, which reviewed the study. "It was done with a great deal of rigor."

In Spokane County, the number of mentally ill jumped to 22,300, or about 1 in 20 people.

That's nearly double the 1998 estimate, which found 12,300 had a serious mental illness.

Spokane County reported an unusually high number of homeless people with mental illness, which raised eyebrows on the committee.

The county reported 1,300 homeless people had mental illness, more than any county except King County.

County officials could not be reached Wednesday.

The study is part of an ongoing review of the state's mental health system, which legislative auditors have criticized.

In 2001, the Legislature ordered the division to conduct the new study, and to revise its data to reflect current census numbers and historically uncounted populations, such as children.

The study could also affect funding for 14 regional support networks, which oversee mental health care.

Spokane County benefited after the Legislature changed how it funds the regional networks in 2000. The Legislature closely tied the funding to the number of people who qualify for Medicaid, the state-federal program for low-income insurance.

On Wednesday, auditors said the Legislature might consider tweaking that formula to be more independent of the Medicaid population. In some regions, the report said, Medicaid-eligiblity may not reflect the needs of the entire community.

"I don't think we'll see major changes in the next session," said Rep. Brad Benson, R-Spokane, a member of the legislative committee. "The question is, what are we going to do to fund the RSNs based on this information."

Dr. Judy Hall, research director for the Mental Health Division, said it was too soon to say whether the study will have dramatic effects on federal funding, or how the state funds its regional mental health networks.

It may prove most valuable, Hill said, as a base line for future research.

"We're hoping to use this document for projections and to start to look at service gaps and unmet needs," Hill said.


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