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Mental health, housing among top health issues in Walla Walla County

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin - 9/23/2023

Sep. 22—Mental health, housing and substance use were recently identified as some of the top health issues in Walla Walla County after a six-month survey process.

This year, the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health conducted its first community health survey since 2018. The results were presented to the public on Tuesday, Sept. 19, after the survey process wrapped up.

The top five issues identified were mental health, housing, substance use, access to specialty care and access to health care.

Amy Osterman, the health department's Human Services Division manager who also oversees epidemiology, said the health department staff interviewed 19 community leaders, collected 443 individual surveys and hosted five focus groups to gather information.

"Now that we know these five areas, now that we have the data, now that we have the community health needs assessment done, the next step is our Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP)," Osterman said.

The CHIP will be put together by the Walla Walla Community Health Partnership, which is a group that meets once a month to discuss local health needs and resource gaps.

The health department shared information about each issue during a community event on Tuesday when the assessment results were made public.

Mental health

Mental health was the No. 1 issue identified by community members during the survey process, with 80% of respondents reporting an increase in anxiety or stress in the past 12 months.

The 2021 Healthy Youth Survey shows that Walla Walla County has a high rate of depression, with 22% of 10th grade students reporting that they seriously contemplated suicide within the past 12 months. Osterman said the depression rate was also higher than state average in adults.

The assessment includes comments from several community members, including College Place Police Chief Troy Tomaras, who said it was often a struggle for designated crisis responders to respond quickly. He said typically there's only one crisis responder working at any given time.

"You'll have a crisis responder dealing with someone else, but they may have an ETA of four hours, which has been a huge problem in our community," Tomaras said. "And they are limited in what they can do — they can't transport people. And certainly, the fire department can send someone to help transport, but that's an expense for them. There's a lot of challenges associated with crisis."


Osterman said the housing issue could be summarized by one comment an unidentified community member made during one of the focus groups — "We prioritize rent and food and put our health to the side because it is more important to have somewhere for our family to sleep."

Osterman said 45% of people in Walla Walla County spend more than 35% of their income on rent, which means they are rent-burdened.

"Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies have started to use the term 'rent burden,' which is defined as paying an amount for your housing that leaves you financially vulnerable," Osterman said.

During the survey, housing was the second-most mentioned issue by community members. Data from the 2021 Healthy Youth Survey shows 2.5% of children in public schools in Walla Walla County are homeless, and 6% of people who have Medicaid were homeless for one or more months during the previous year.

Substance use

The 2020 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey found that binge drinking is worse in Walla Walla County than the rest of the state and Chelan County, which was used as a comparison county for Walla Walla.

The survey showed that 22% of residents reported binge drinking at least once in the past 30 days, while the state average is 16.4%.

Osterman also said opioid use was becoming a big issue among youths in Walla Walla County. The rate of opioid prescriptions in the county is 47.4 out of every 100 people, while the state's rate is 39.5 per 100.

"We have a higher rate of 10th graders using opioids or painkillers to get high," Osterman said.

The assessment also includes data showing the county has a higher rate than the state of 10th grade students smoking cigarettes, using vapes and using illicit drugs.

Specialty care

"We had many people comment that they couldn't find specialists," Osterman said. "When you look, our access to specialists appears to be equal to the rest of Washington state. Our concern is that people are having to travel to communities outside of Walla Walla."

She said the health department was not able to find much data to back up the claims that there is a lack of access to specialists in the county, but it was brought up so much during interviews, focus groups and surveys that the department decided to include it as one of the top issues.

"We were concerned that maybe instead of being open five days a week, we might have specialists who are open three days a week," Osterman said. "So that shrinks the number of services they can provide. We weren't able to substantiate that, but it was mentioned so often in the community that it came as a 'help me.'"

Access to health care

Fourteen percent of county residents last year reported needing to see a doctor but not going because of the cost.

"That's almost 5% higher than the state average," Osterman said.

The survey also found that 54% of respondents missed their yearly checkup during the pandemic, and 50% missed a medical test or treatment during the pandemic.

"We have a federally qualified health center here, we have Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, we have the SOS clinic, we have Providence that provides many of those services if you can't pay," Osterman said. "And still, that's a pretty high difference with most states."


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