Facing More Assaults, WA Psychiatric Hospital Workers Call for Funds

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Employees at Washington's state-owned psychiatric hospitals say there's an urgent need to boost funding for their facilities, citing growing safety concerns for staff and patients.

Assaults by patients have been on the rise at both Western State and Eastern State hospitals, including at least three assaults on staff at Eastern in the past week. Kimberly Cogswell, a mental-health technician there, is among workers who want lawmakers to back Gov. Jay Inslee's budget proposal, which would fund more than 800 full-time employees at the hospitals.

"I think we're at a tipping point because if you look historically - the underfunding and the recession, and all that - we're still catching up," she said. "And so, I strongly believe that the more qualified, educated, trained staff that you have, the safer the patients will feel."

House and Senate budgets have proposed adding fewer employees than Inslee, requesting staff increases of 709 and 689, respectively. Workers say understaffing contributes to the rise in assaults and makes it difficult to provide staff training to help avoid or diffuse these confrontations. They also want to see investment in infrastructure.

Mike Yestramski, a psychiatric social worker at Western State Hospital, said he believes investing now would save money in the long run, by aiding in patients' recovery and allowing them to rejoin their communities faster. He also contended that violence between patients isn't getting enough attention.

"We are serving the most vulnerable members of our society, and part of that is giving them treatment but also part of that is keeping them safe," he said. "And in order to do that, we need to have enough people, and enough people who are up to date on their trainings and their skills."

Yestramski said he and his colleagues are looking for support from the Legislature to do what he sees as a "calling."

"The people that I work with every day are people who come to work in a difficult situation because they care about the work that they do," he said, "and they truly want to help people recover from their illnesses and be able to get back to leading productive lives, whatever that looks like for them."

The legislative session is scheduled to adjourn on April 28.

The budget proposals are online at leap.leg.wa.gov.