The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Sheriff's office deals with growing number of mental health calls


From 2007 to 2013, the number of mental health calls that the Wahkiakum County Sheriff’s Office received tripled. And just halfway through 2016, the department nearly matched the total for 2013.

According to Raedyn Grasseth, the administrative assistant for the office, the second half of 2016 was even busier.

“Mental health calls are a huge issue,” Sheriff Mark Howie said in a recent interview. “It could be just a suspicious person walking in the middle of the street, but it turns into a mental health call because they are whacked out, they’re off their meds, and they are doing drugs or one or the other and it’s causing a mental health crisis for that person and the community.”

The average number of inmates in the county jail has gone up by five in the last year and a half as well. They have room for 14, but frequently have 10-13 there each day.

“Jails across the U.S., and you can really see it in our smaller jails, are becoming a depository for mental health issues that turn into petty crimes,” Howie said. “It’s absolutely a drain on the sheriff’s office resources and the community’s resources because the community is funding public safety.

"And public safety is becoming issues of mental health. We’re always going to have our crimes, our felony burglaries or felony thefts, assaults, that kind of thing. Those have gone up and down over the years but long term, nothing is way out of whack with that, but mental health issues are way out of whack.”

Howie believes that a lot of the mental health issues are exacerbated by easy access to drugs, which are now cheaper and stronger than they used to be.

“A lot of it coincides with drug issues,” Howie said. “It’s $10 to go get heroin. You can buy meth or heroin as easy as you can buy a pack of cigarettes. That keeps feeding into mental health issues and alters their brain chemistry. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate. Is this behavior stemming from their drug abuse and drug history or is it a separate mental health issue or a combination? Most of the times it is a combination. The rampant use of hard drugs over the last couple decades has really contributed to mental health issues, I guarantee it.”

Once upon a time, inmates with mental health issues would be sent to psychiatric facilities where people were trained to provide care. But the money has dwindled, and now they are being left in the jail and left to law enforcement, without the resources to provide any real hope for improvement.

“Over the years our legislators, mainly state and federal level, have taken away funding that in the past would have allowed us to send them to a bed at Western State or a local psych facility,” Howie said. “Now we might put an involuntary hold on someone and take them to the ER, but they will send them back that same night. Even if they’ve sliced their arm and they said they just want to die. They are an imminent danger to themselves or others and we do what we are supposed to do and the ER is signing them off to leave out the door that night. It’s happened here several times. There is nowhere to put them.”

“It is frustrating because law enforcement has been screaming at legislators from county all the way up to the state and national level for at least seven years that I know of,” Howie added. “We’re seeing these issues rising, and we know that it’s happening. We’ve gone to them, and nothing nothing nothing. Until it affects them in some other way, they just thinks a cop will handle it.”

And they are handling it the best they can. The inmates who are coming in with mental health issues or drug addiction aren’t getting access to counseling. Medications are given to them by corrections officers. The jail isn’t an official detox center, so inmates who use drugs or alcohol come down from their highs and lows naturally. Treatment centers are few and far between, and even if someone is ready for treatment, there is likely not a bed ready for him or her.

“We are not set up to deal with that. We’re in the business of public safety,” Howie said. “People don’t see it, but we are feeling it here. I’ve got a full jail most of the time. You could talk to anybody that works in this building and they are all shocked at the amount of activity that they are hearing down here. We’re having to put people in restraints because they are going off the deep end mentally. They are either off their meds or they were using. And now there is nothing to get them high, so they are withdrawing and going nuts. They are hallucinating, getting paranoid, trying to ram themselves into the wall, or stuffing the toilet, and we are having to put them in the chair. They are screaming their heads off in the middle of the day. And everybody is wondering what is going on down here.”

Grasseth echoed Howie’s words.

“The last two years have been horrible with the mental health issues that we’ve had,” Grasseth said. “With overtimes, with hours just dealing with inmates one on one. Not only do they fight us, they fight each other. I’ve been here for 19 years and I’ve never seen it like this before. The ones we have now are completely out of control, kicking and screaming.”

Resources are being stretched thin, Howie said. Inmates have damaged $7,000 worth of equipment, officers are working overtime, medical bills have skyrocketed.

“They want to get out of here and go to the hospital, so they harm themselves,” Howie said. “We have four or five of them that we are trying to get mental health or a doctor to prescribe the medications they were on to keep them level. We have to separate them because they are paranoid about each other.”

Howie wants to have a nurse practitioner on staff next year to hand out medications. He is currently planning to put it in the budget.

“This is the place where they are getting help,” he said, “but they shouldn’t be getting help in jail.”


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