What is Behavioral Health and what’s this proposed tax for it?

The term “Behavioral Health” means health afflictions including mental health disorders, substance use disorders, and problem gambling. For many years, behavioral health treatment was almost exclusively funded at the state and federal level. As those resources rarely met the needs of the people in crisis, the state passed legislation to allow counties to tax themselves 0.001% to help fund local programs to meet the expanding need. Most of the counties in the Puget Sound passed the new tax, allowing millions of dollars to be spent on behavioral health programs. To date, Pierce County has chosen not to adopt this revenue source. I support this increase.

Why the 1/10th of 1% Sales Tax for Behavioral Health is a good investment.

For the past 5 years, I have been a policy director at the State Department of Health. I have worked with our team and other state agencies to improve our state behavioral health system. Unlike a decade ago, there are far more opportunities for local governments to obtain matching funding, grants, and establish pilot projects that can have a real, positive effect on those in crisis. The state has been making real change happen – and the science is finally catching up with the need.

We need to invest in behavioral health treatment and early diagnosis. The earlier these challenges are addressed, the higher the likelihood of success. Please keep in mind – we the taxpayer will be paying either for more jail space, courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and sheriffs or we can invest more in prevention services and reduce those long-term costs. Remember, jail costs us around $90 a day. That does not include the legal system I just mentioned that got them there.  That old adage about an ounce of prevention – it’s real.

Behavioral health system goals

Pierce County needs to develop a comprehensive behavioral health system. This means, we need to be able to provide services for people in different stages of illness and with different types of illness. These services can include anything from support systems for those suffering from depression to more intensive treatment services for those Pierce County residents leaving Western State Hospital. They can also include supportive housing so that people who have completed substance use disorder treatment are not released to the street.

These services should follow a patient centered, peer driven model. This means that the treatment is individualized and those receiving services are assisted by peers. When you are in crisis it helps to have someone who has been there before to walk you through the system and just the experience of dealing with a behavioral illness. The county can and should be a leader in peer inclusion whenever possible. For those of us who are in recovery for depression or alcoholism, we know how important it is that having a guide with us will improve our chance of success.

So, where should we invest?

The county has invested in several studies over the past four years to understand the existing need of our population. The pandemic, however, has exacerbated this need dramatically. The number of persons attempting suicide has increased. The number of people who self-identify having depressive thoughts on a regular basis has increased from 20% of the population to nearly 40%. Any effort by the council to invest in behavioral health will have to take these changes into account. The stress and isolation have also impacted our children. I support working with our school districts and reserving a portion of this fund to support early detection and behavioral health assistance for our schools.

Pierce County has invested resources in diversion programs and therapeutic courts to reduce the number of people with behavioral health challenges in our jail. We will need to expand those programs to meet the current need. We also need to protect that investment and ensure housing services to ensure that people who graduate from those programs are not released back to the streets where they are at risk of falling out of sobriety.

How we ensure that the money is well spent.

Those who have followed my career know that I am a Democrat who believes in government having a social contract with the community. As an elected official, I feel that I have to go the extra mile to prove that we are doing the right thing by my constituents. Any behavioral health tax that I support must have an open, transparent, and public process. There must be contracts and identified deliverables within those contracts so we can review and understand which programs are working, which do not, and how to improve them. For more details on my Bill of Rights for Residents of Pierce County – see here.

What’s Next:

For many years, the state and the county have fought each other. After spending 5 years working with state agencies trying to improve our system, I believe that I am uniquely qualified to help lead our county away from our ignorance of behavioral health and to a more enlightened government. Our county needs to step up and protect residents and taxpayers by investing in behavioral health programs that work. I look forward to working with you on this goal together.

As always, if you want to talk to me directly, you can call me at (253) 431-8081 or email at [email protected]

Behavioral Health Infographic