Act now to help the mentally ill

Editorial by the Portland Tribune, November 2, 2006.

For a state and city known more for lengthy public process and less for immediate results, it was impressive Tuesday that a group of elected officials, mental health advocates and public safety officials agreed it was time to stop talking and instead act immediately to assist the mentally ill.

The scene was the first meeting of a Mental Health and Public Safety Task Force convened by Portland Mayor Tom Potter following the death of James Chasse Jr., a mentally ill man who died Sept. 17 in a struggle with Portland police officers seeking to arrest him.

State Sen. Avel Gordly of Portland, who will chair the task force with Potter, set the tone of the meeting and made an impassioned declaration for action. “We don’t need any more studies. We need to act on what we already know. We are going to do the things we need to do.”

Meanwhile, Chasse’s death already has prompted Potter to call on the city to spend $500,000 in the next two years to train police officers on how to better deal with the mentally ill. Multnomah County officials also are talking about instituting additional crisis-intervention training for county sheriff’s deputies and jail personnel.

But while the spotlight is on the tragic death of Chasse, Portland is not alone in the mental-health crisis. Over the past few months, confrontations between suburban law-enforcement personnel and people suffering from mental illness, severe depression or excessive alcohol or drug use have ended in three other violent deaths from police-involved shootings.

While each of these deaths is a tragedy, the crisis of how to better serve the mentally ill is not exclusively about police officers’ actions and training.

It’s important to understand that Oregon has largely abandoned its mentally ill citizens, many of whom eventually become homeless. Changes in state policies, including mental hospital closures and funding cutbacks, have placed more mentally ill within communities that don’t have resources to provide needed services.

Along the way, studies on the needs of mentally ill Oregonians have been completed, but only gather dust.

To change these unacceptable dynamics, several things need to happen quickly:

  • The Potter-Gordly task force must complete a plan of action by mid-January calling for specific strategic and measurable steps to be taken to assist Portland’s mentally ill.
  • A plan to fund these immediate recommendations must be created.
  • Potter must call upon his fellow regional mayors and county commissioners to adopt and implement parallel action plans in their own communities.
  • An inventory of mental illness assistance programs successfully used in nearby states, such as Washington and California, should be completed and considered as additional solutions here in Oregon.
  • Local officials, along with mental-health advocates, must convince the 2007 Oregon Legislature that it is time for the state to adequately fund improvements to the state hospital and within community-based mental illness programs.
  • State and local officials should build a partnership with advertising agencies and Portland-area media to help illustrate that those who are sick with mental illness can vitally contribute to their community if given a bit of assistance and the opportunity to do so.

Taking these and other steps won’t bring back James Chasse Jr.

But they should compel the community and state, regional and local agencies to address what each must do differently and better for our mentally ill – starting now.