Kirkland plans to build mental health crisis center

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral…

Kirkland plans to build mental health crisis center
Kirkland plans to build mental health crisis center

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

A coalition of five King County cities is set to build the county’s first walk-in mental health crisis care center, officials announced Wednesday, a move that comes before a countywide levy vote in April that could add even more such centers to the region.

The crisis center — which would only serve adults — is expected to operate under the so-called no wrong door model, which was developed in states including Arizona and Texas and offers timely care to those who need it. No adults would be turned away, including those who lack insurance, and the center would be equipped to handle people with a wide range of mental health concerns. 

The center is expected to open in Kirkland in 2024. It could serve up to 14,000 people each year.

A lack of crisis centers here is widely acknowledged as a hole in an already overstretched mental health system. The number of King County residential mental health beds is half what it was 30 years ago, and people seeking outpatient appointments can wait weeks or months for care. 

Said King County Executive Dow Constantine, “This announcement today is a down payment on reversing the disinvestment that has happened over decades.” Constantine and several other elected officials including Gov. Jay Inslee gathered Wednesday at Kirkland City Hall to promote the new facility.

Those who need help immediately often end up in emergency departments or jails, or left without resources on the streets. Although the nonprofit Downtown Emergency Service Center provides crisis care, people who receive it have to be referred by police or first responders.

In acknowledgment of this, the Metropolitan King County Council unanimously approved a proposal in January that would add five mental health crisis centers across the county. The measure heads to voters on April 25 and, if it passes, would raise about $1.25 billion in property taxes over nine years to fund construction and operation costs, among other things. 

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Plans to open a crisis center in north King County predate the levy initiative, however, said Beth Goldberg, deputy city manager for operations in Kirkland. And construction funds have already been secured. 

Officials from the five cities — Bothell, Kenmore, Kirkland, Lake Forest Park and Shoreline — began conversations about the crisis center about 18 months ago, Goldberg said. The cities previously worked together on a program that pairs mental health professionals with police departments.

After vetting providers last year, the cities decided to partner with Connections Health Solutions, an Arizona-based operator that runs crisis centers in Tucson and Phoenix. “It’s pretty unusual that you’ve got five cities saying, come to us, come to us,” Goldberg said. “Most of the time it’s, ‘We want one, but we want one somewhere else.’ ” 

Connections’ entry into Washington signals a shift in the state’s approach to crisis care. Arizona’s mental health care system is more integrated than Washington’s, and last year, about four dozen Washington leaders visited the southwest state’s service providers for inspiration. 

“Washington is different from Arizona. But when we first brought our model to Arizona, it was kind of a similar place,” said Morgan Matthews, vice president of partnerships at Connections.

Similar to the crisis center design proposed by the county levy, the center in Kirkland will offer urgent care, a 23-hour stabilization unit and 32 beds for longer-term care. People who need a prescription could walk in to get a refill. Those with underlying medical conditions would qualify for care, or be transferred elsewhere if needed. 

Only adults will be eligible for services. The network of outpatient and inpatient services for children here isn’t robust enough to guarantee they’d be given reliable referrals for ongoing help, Goldberg said.

But Connections hasn’t ruled out expanding services to youth in the future, Matthews noted, and if the levy passes, at least one of the county’s new crisis centers would specialize in serving youth.

“It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing,” Goldberg said. “If the wraparound services are the impediment, that’s also probably why the need for a crisis response center for youth is so critical.”

Connections has secured $21.5 million in capital dollars to lease and convert an office building in Kirkland’s 405 Corporate Center, which is in the Totem Lake neighborhood. The funds primarily include Washington State Department of Commerce grants and county dollars, including funding generated from a King County-wide sales tax related to behavioral health. King County officials say levy dollars could potentially be used to supplement the Kirkland center, though final budgeting decisions would be up to council members. 

The building is conveniently located off Interstate 405 and is about one mile from EvergreenHealth medical center, Goldberg said. Because the building is zoned in a commercial area, converting it to a crisis center doesn’t require zoning changes. 

Outreach to nearby businesses will begin soon, Goldberg said. A website launched by Connections, officials said, will be updated as the project progresses.

Mental health resources from The Seattle Times