United Way's mental health focus is wise

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United Way of Walla Walla took a different focus this year, pledging to allocate a large chunk of its donations to reduce problems associated with mental health in the Valley.

Since United Way generally distributes funds directly to agencies such as Helpline and Catholic Charities that reach out and serve those who need assistance, so many who donated to UW wondered how this new focus would work. First indications are it should work well. The plan seems to be well thought out and pinpointed a specific need in Walla Walla.

United Way’s mental health task force recommended $73,000 be used to diagnose and treat those living with mental illness. A grant of that amount is going to looked to Family Medical Center on Rose Street “because of its promise to make a measurable impact on the citizens of the Walla Walla area,” said Christy Druffel, local United Way executive director.

Walla Walla, despite a recent sales-tax hike countywide to address mental health issues, lacks enough mental health services.

The U.S. Department of Social and Health Services ranks Walla Walla County in the bottom fourth of Washington state’s 39 counties in availability of mental health professionals. A community health assessment team determined the Valley needs another 10 psychologists and 15 more social workers to meet the current need here.

In 2011, local hospital emergency rooms were used as an expensive stand-in for regular mental-health care. The ER visits resulted in $1.7 million in uncollected fees at the hospitals, Druffel said. That cost, one way or another, is passed along to those who can pay.

Beyond that, ERs are not the proper place for regular mental health treatment.

Family Medical Center will use the allocation to hire a behavioral health consultant who will work alongside primary care physicians for the next three years. In this way, the physical and mental care can be given at the same location. Doctors can bring in the behavioral health consultant when the need is seen.

Ultimately, the public and private mental health system must improve. But United Way’s contribution should serve to reduce the problem. People will be helped and money will be saved as emergency room abuse should diminish.

U-B Publisher Rob Blethen, a United Way Board member, did not participate in the writing or editing of this editorial.

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