On the Pulse

Meet Laura Knapp: A Leader With Unrelenting Hope

11.29.2023 | Amanda Maier and Heather Cooper

A photo of a familySeattle Children’s welcomes Laura Knapp as its new vice president of Mental and Behavioral Health. An innovator, collaborator and optimist, Knapp leads Seattle Children’s mental and behavioral health strategy. She is responsible for the organization’s efforts to meet the recent increased demand for services and develop strategies for long-term growth and expansion.

In her 20-year career working in mental and behavioral health care, Knapp says she’s done most social work jobs imaginable, including serving as a therapist, social worker and now, administrator.

On the Pulse sat down with Knapp to learn what she thinks makes Seattle Children’s unique, how collaboration is crucial to increasing access to care, and why the fall season is especially busy in her house.

Share a bit about your background.

Knapp: My life has been dedicated to the field of social work and helping others. I started my journey in mental and behavioral health when I volunteered as a teenager for a teen suicide prevention hotline. As a clinical social worker, I have worked internationally, for multiple nonprofits, as a clinical therapist, and in other healthcare settings. Before coming to Seattle Children’s, I worked at Providence Swedish and oversaw their behavioral service lines across the continuum of care, including the openings of a behavioral urgent care clinic and a new inpatient psychiatric unit in Everett.

You’ve worked at other organizations. What do you think makes Seattle Children’s unique?

Knapp: There is a real commitment at Seattle Children’s toward expanding mental and behavioral health services. Seattle Children’s has positioned ourselves to be leaders in this space — working with community partners to address long-standing gaps in mental and behavioral health care. I’ve been impressed with the External Affairs team’s advocacy. Our organization is a key voice in legislative changes to address barriers toward patients accessing the services they need, like the legislative work earlier this year to expand services to support kids who are “stuck” in hospitals. It’s rewarding to see Seattle Children’s lead with innovation and contribute to solutions.

Your role as VP, Mental and Behavioral Health, is a new position at Seattle Children’s. What does it include?

Knapp: This role is designed to bring mental and behavioral health services in the outpatient, inpatient and Emergency Department (ED) settings together as one service line — it’s about supporting a patient’s journey through the continuum of care. Often a patient who receives care for mental and behavioral health in one area at Seattle Children’s, like the inpatient Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit (PBMU), may transition to another area. If our mental and behavioral services aren’t operating as a single service line, that creates challenges for families and can negatively impact a patient’s care.

One example of strategic work related to this effort is the recently launched Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), which is a step down in terms of treatment intensity from inpatient psychiatric services. Some patients from the inpatient side may transition to this program, and patients in the program will transition to another ambulatory program at Seattle Children’s or in the community.

How are you and other leaders working to address the increased demand for mental and behavioral health services?

Knapp: We’ve implemented some short-term plans to address immediate needs, like receiving approval from the Department of Health to temporarily see patients in another space as an extension of the ED. A top priority for our team is to address the immediate crisis, in part, by transitioning patients appropriately to outpatient programs, but we also need to produce long-term growth strategies that can be sustained. Providing new solutions like the PHP and connecting with community partners is critical to avoiding situations like families having to wait in emergency departments for care. We’re also exploring innovative solutions such as a behavioral health urgent care.

My team partners with other organizations that are providing mental and behavioral health services in the community. There are long waitlists for many Seattle Children’s programs, so part of our role is to connect families to community partners and resources so patients can get treatment at the most appropriate site for them.

Another thing we’re focused on is trying to bring services to the communities where families live. For example, at Seattle Children’s North Clinic in Everett, we’re in the process of revamping services to be more focused on crisis intervention and stabilization so patients can ultimately receive long-term treatment elsewhere in their community, freeing up more space at our clinic to serve the most immediate needs. We also have received federal funding to expand our mental and behavioral health services at Seattle Children’s South Clinic in Federal Way next year.

As Seattle Children’s mental and behavioral health services grow, is there also work underway to expand the team?

Knapp: Our mental health team is incredible, but the pandemic and influx of patients with mental health challenges over the past several years have made their roles even more challenging.

Having enough workforce in the behavioral health space has been challenging across the country. It’s one of the top things being addressed in the legislature and External Affairs is advocating on behalf of Seattle Children’s. The need for care providers has grown significantly in recent years and the workforce across the industry hasn’t been able to keep up. At Seattle Children’s, our unique training programs help develop our clinical team, so we will have the workforce to expand to additional sites. From an industry perspective, I think we’re leading the way with this work and we know we have more work ahead.

What makes providing mental and behavioral health services unique from other areas?

Knapp: For many years, there was stigma around talking about and receiving care for mental and behavioral health. Post-pandemic, people are more open to receiving care and talking about situations that impact them mentally. The challenge now is that the need for services has become so overwhelming that most people can’t access them. As a clinician, knowing there are people who need a diagnosis or preventative treatment but can’t access them is morally distressing.

Tell me about your life outside of work. What do you do in your free time?

Knapp: I have three kids, so there’s not a lot of free time. I say I have two jobs — the work job and the home job. My oldest is 11 and just started middle school, and I have a 9- and 6-year-old. We’re a busy and active household. My husband is a firefighter, so our family has odd schedules, especially this time of year. I’m coaching soccer now and will coach basketball later this year, too. I really enjoy being able to give back and have always loved working with kids. Coaching is one way for me to do that while also spending time with my own kids.