Pierce County case highlights need for mental health reform

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by HEATHER GRAF / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @HeatherGrafK5

KING5.com

Posted on February 12, 2014 at 10:53 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 13 at 12:42 AM

On Wednesday, a Pierce County man allegedly called 911 and confessed to killing his young daughter, then trying to kill himself.  The story and suicide attempt hit home for a widow living miles away in Seattle.

Jenn Stuber is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington.  She's also a mother of two, and a widow.

"My husband died by suicide almost three years ago," she said.  "And at the time of his death, he was a corporate attorney, and he was a father to two young children and in a happy marriage."

She knows there are a lot of differences between her husband's story and what happened in Pierce County, but says there are also similarities.

Both men apparently were suffering from mental health problems and had sought professional help.

Pierce County Sheriff’s officials say the 26-year-old now in custody spent a night in a mental hospital in January after a suicide attempt, but was released the next day.

Stuber says her husband was seeing at least three mental health professionals in the months leading up to his death.

"He was actually seeking treatment to mental health problems, anxiety and depression," she said.  "I learned later, from reading his medical records, that there are actually some very detrimental things that were done, in terms of his care, that I think contributed to his feelings of hopelessness."

Stuber feels there is very much a 'pass the buck' mentality among healthcare professionals when it comes to mental health issues.

"It was clear, in my husband's case, that the mental health professionals treating him did not want to take care of him, they wanted to try to get rid of him, get him off their case load," she said.  "They saw it as a burden."

She says the Pierce County case is yet another example that change is needed at the state level.

"The only thing you can do when a tragedy like that happens is to really to to understand what happened and to learn the lessons from it," she said.

Stuber teaches public policy courses at the University of Washington, and that background has enabled her to push several new bills regarding mental health and suicide prevention through the state legislature.

The first, approved in 2012, is named after her husband.

Now, she's working on a third bill.  This one requires new and more thorough training for doctors, nurses, emergency room personnel, and any other healthcare professional on the front lines.

"We can't just keep passing the buck and saying that's not my problem, I don't want to deal with this," she said.  "We have to ask those questions directly about suicide, we have to do safety planning.  We have to do follow-ups on patients, we can't just send someone from the emergency room who has told you they're feeling suicidal or hopeless back onto the street and not follow up with that person.  That's the kind of story I hear a lot of."

If you are concerned about someone you know or love, Stuber encourages encourages you to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Another resource, complete with warning signs of suicide can be found here.

The bill Stuber is currently pushing is now making its way through the state house.  She is hopeful it will gain approval in the house and senate, and says it would be the first law of its kind in the country.

"We know there's a lot going on right now in this state, that's or importance," she said.  "But it would be hard to imagine that there's an issue that's more important than this one."

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