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Q13’s Brandi Kruse: Mental health needs to be the priority

(Matt Pitman, KIRO Radio)

Homelessness, drug addiction, property crime — they’re problems plaguing Seattle, King County, and the entire Puget Sound region, making the headlines on a regular basis. But according to Q13’s Brandi Kruse, none of these will get significantly better until one distinct issue is first addressed — mental health.

This was the thesis of Kruse’s latest segment of her weekly commentary series “The Divide.” In this week’s edition, she stressed how important it is for mental health treatment to be at the top of the agendas of lawmakers.

“It seems like the state and the city are always trying to solve things on an island — put money at the opioid crisis, and the homeless epidemic, and crime, and training officers, when there is one thing underlying all of those issues, and that’s mental health,” she told KTTH’s Todd Herman, filling in on the Dori Monson Show.

RELATED: State lawmakers unveil proposals to improve mental health care

Kruse, who said that she has personally gone out on the streets and had in-depth conversations with the homeless, called it a “fool’s errand” to try to solve issues such as homelessness absent of the mental health conversation.

One of the necessary actions, Kruse said, includes moving mental health care out of large, crowded facilities like Western State Hospital and localizing them, so that people have easier access to specialized care. Governor Inslee this month proposed opening new state-run mental health facilities across Washington.

Kruse said that she feels hopeful, as politicians from both sides of the aisle are beginning to look seriously at the issue of mental health.

“The biggest hope that I have right now … is that both sides have said, ‘This needs to be one of the biggest priorities, we have put mental health on the back burner for far too long,'” she said. “It’s hard to say how much agreement they’re going to have going into the new session, but the fact that we’re even talking about mental health — and the byproducts that can be homelessness and drug addiction — does give me some hope.”

While he applauded the efforts toward increasing mental health treatment, Todd was not sure if this will help every person living in a tent. He referred to a late friend who, he said, had chosen to live on the streets, and argued that some of Seattle’s homeless individuals are also on the streets of their own accord, to avoid responsibilities such as having a job and paying for a place to live. Between the amount of free services and de-policing, he said, people around the country who want a life on the streets see Seattle as a paradise.

“I think we have to have some recognition that there are a subset of people — and I don’t know what percentage they are — of people who choose to come to Seattle and King County because they can be street people and be successful at it,” he said.

Kruse responded that there is no data on how many people may have chosen to come to “Freeattle” — the common name for the idea of Seattle as a city where resources are given for free to people who do not work for them — but pointed out that even if people have chosen to seek out a city in which they could live on the streets free of restrictions, there were likely mental health issues that led them to make that decision.

“There has to be a point where the city has offered them so much and done so much outreach, that you have to kind of put your foot down … It’s challenging to know what to do with those individuals, or if it’s simply policies in the city that make that worse,” she said. “Without statistics, I just can’t give you a definitive answer.”

One fix the city can make, in Kruse’s opinion? Stop leaving Seattle police officers to act as the sole social workers of thousands of people having mental health crises. She noted that the police deal with about 10,000 people going through mental health crises every year.

“We talk so much about crisis training for our police officers, and no doubt that is training that they absolutely need … but what the city and the state need to stop doing is acting as if that is a substitute for  proper treatment and prevention,” she said. “You cannot put it on the backs of police officers to be mental health workers.”

Todd agreed, remembering the fact that Charleena Lyles, who was shot by Seattle police in an altercation in 2017, had been previously turned away from mental health courts.

“This was a woman who was turned away from mental health courts after she said that she believed she could turn into a werewolf,” he said. “That was not … a failure of the officers, it was a failure of the system.”

“I’m all for, and I think everyone should be all for, having officers trained to deal with people in crisis,” Kruse said. “But let’s try to prevent it from getting into that point, where officers are coming into contact with thousands of these people every single year, and then blaming officers when those contacts don’t go correctly.”


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