By Terra Rea
Special to the Reporter
The city of Bellevue and our neighbors are in the midst of an opioid crisis. Overdose deaths have increased by over 300 percent in the last decade, and there are now more people in King County seeking treatment for opioids than for alcohol. Currently, our state lacks both the behavioral health infrastructure — like clinics and beds — and the staff to meet the growing need.
That’s why it’s inspiring to see state elected officials from both sides of the aisle declare that improving our behavioral and mental system is their number one priority for this legislative session. But we need to ensure the entire system is strengthened — not just the crisis end of it.
This work should start by increasing access to community behavioral health care — the most cost-effective way to address this crisis. Community health centers, in particular, can offer on-the-ground preventive services that help people before they reach an emergency situation that requires law enforcement involvement or a trip to the emergency room.
As a psychologist at International Community Health Services (ICHS) Bellevue Clinic, I see how investing in community health centers could help patients with behavioral health issues every day. For example, this past year our clinic provided behavioral health services to “Mary,” a 26-year-old single mother with a young child who needed support to escape her abusive ex-partner. She started therapy for depression and panic attacks, began to develop a new support network for her child, and worked to become financially independent. Without that support, her path might have led to homelessness or substance use.
In the past three years, ICHS has added six behavioral health providers to keep up with the growing demand for care from people like Mary, providing help with PTSD, bipolar disorders and substance use disorders. But the need is still greater than our capacity.
An investment by the State of Washington could allow us to expand our behavioral health offerings and dedicate space in our existing building to behavioral health services. We are asking the Legislature for funds for our Bellevue Medical and Dental Clinic to add space and staff for mental health, substance use disorder and opioid use disorder treatment, alongside medical and medication assisted treatment providers. This would allow us to increase the number of patients we serve with varying mental health and/or substance abuse needs by nearly 40 percent. Many require multiple visits with medical and behavioral health professionals.
The Legislature can also help us attract behavioral health professionals to serve low-income and underserved populations with an additional investment dedicated to these providers in the state health professional loan repayment program.
Community health centers are best positioned to serve Bellevue’s growing immigrant population. Right now, 87 percent of our patients identify as an ethnicity other than white. This means we are already set up to provide culturally competent services to immigrant populations who often face language and other barriers when attempting to find mental health treatment.
Please contact your state legislators and ask them to support behavioral health investments focused on prevention, early intervention and ongoing treatment this session. These investments would provide immediate solutions to address our state’s behavioral health crisis, saving lives and saving the state money.
Terra Rea, PsyD, is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and works at International Community Health Services Bellevue Clinic.