Fixing Washington’s broken mental health system

Washington state faces a major challenge in appropriately and effectively addressing the needs of those with mental illness. Diagnosis and treatment can be complex, often involving multiple parties and sometimes including the legal system, law enforcement and the corrections system.  It is an issue not only affecting an individual’s health and well-being, but the safety and well-being of others. It is also an issue that transcends politics; this is a matter of fairness and understanding.

The state Supreme Court was clear when it issued a decision on August 7, 2014, calling attention to the improper “boarding” of the mentally ill in hospitals and not providing them appropriate treatment. Luckily the Legislature and governor answered the call of the court and passed an early action supplemental budget this legislative session, increasing mental health treatment capacities.

Notwithstanding this great first step, we’re still far from fully addressing our broken mental health system. Individuals in our communities are plagued with mental illness and struggle daily, and as a result of the status quo, some of these individuals have threatened the lives of others and themselves. At times their mental health episodes end in the tragic loss of innocent lives.

During my service as the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, multiple mental-health-related bills have been considered by the body. The last few years, I’ve worked with my colleagues in the House and Senate to improve treatment standards and expand family access to the court system.

So far this legislative session, the House has been successful in unanimously passing legislation to enable families of mentally ill individuals who pose a serious threat to themselves or others to petition the courts for involuntary commitment. It’s called “Joel’s Law,” named after Joel Reuter.

Joel, a successful software engineer living in Seattle, struggled with bipolar disorder and was fatally shot by police in 2013, just weeks after being discharged from the hospital. Joel’s parents attempted multiple times to have him involuntarily committed. When they were denied and asked what would make their son meet the required conditions, the answer they received was “when he has a loaded gun in his hand with his finger on the trigger,” then he would meet the criteria.

I cosponsored this bill last year (House Bill 2725), and it unanimously passed the House but stalled in the Senate. I’m proud the House made a serious statement about addressing problems within the mental health system this session by having this year’s bill, House Bill 1258, be one of the first to pass off the floor and make its way to the Senate.

I’m committed to working with my colleagues, and the bill’s prime sponsor, to ensure it is delivered to the governor’s desk by the end of session, and hopefully have it signed and enacted into law.

House Bill 1451 is another bill I sponsored this session, which would identify “persistent or acute disability” as an additional standard for a person to be committed for involuntary mental health treatment. While the legislation had bipartisan backing, it unfortunately will not be progressing this session.

No one should have to endure the psychological and emotional distress of enduring a mental illness without specialized care, treatment and understanding. The fact the current law does not appropriately account for the emotional struggles it inflicts on the mentally ill and families is unjust and unacceptable.


Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snoqualmie, represents the 5th Legislative District in King County. He is the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee and serves on the House Transportation and Health Care and Wellness committees.

State Representative Jay Rodne, 5th Legislative District
420 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7852 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000