A lot of you have already been saying this in the comments, and now the Service Employees International Union is loudly making the point to state legislators, via this white paper and a press conference today in Olympia. What the union's saying, in essence, is that it's actually less expensive to fully fund a robust safety net for the mentally unstable than it is to pay—in lives and tax dollars—for the consequences of not doing so.

  • Service Employees International Union

Isaac Zamora shot six people to death on a killing spree in Skagit Valley in 2008. Last fall, Maurice Clemmons assassinated four Lakewood police officers while they sat in a coffee shop. And in recent months, it’s been hard to open the newspaper without reading about other tragedies involving disturbed individuals and deadly weapons: A grandmother shoots family members before turning the gun on herself. A man hacks a neighbor to death with an axe. A young woman is stabbed to death on a city street.

These tragedies aren’t random and unrelated. They are the siren warnings of a state mental healthcare safety net in deepening crisis.

It’s well known that the vast majority of people living with mental illness are peaceful, functioning members of their community, posing no risk to themselves or others. This is because treatment works, when dedicated mental healthcare professionals are available to provide it. But our current system is only able to do half its job—reaching barely half of low-income residents in need of state-funded mental health services.

When this frayed safety net fails, some people will lose control—with tragic results that wreck lives and destroy everyone’s sense of safety in the community.

There is a strong human predilection to want to relegate these headlines as senseless, unconnected, unfathomable tragedies. That may provide psychological comfort, but it’s deceptive. A root cause of the killings is a mental health safety net that failed disturbed people and their victims—and failed all of us.

SEIU, the state's largest health care union, represents over 2,500 mental health workers in Washington.