Crowd Blasts State Plans to Shut Down Dammasch

The Oregonian, October 3, 1994

They came — 60 men and women, nurses, social workers, friends and kin of the mentally ill. They came to point out the needs of the mentally ill, to mourn and to protest the closing of Dammasch State Hospital.

The crowd gathered Sunday evening outside the main entry to the Wilsonville hospital, listened to songs and several speeches, heard of the myths and facts of the mentally disturbed, prayed and lit candles.

Some 1,000 communities held similar vigils sponsored by the Alliance for the Mentally Ill as part of a nationwide program kicking off Mental Illness Awareness Week.

The Oregon vigil took on more added significance than most.

Dammasch, voted into existence by the Legislature in the early 1960s, is being shut because of the state’s money crunch.

Stanley F. Mazur-Hart, superintendent of Oregon State Hospital, said Dammasch is scheduled to release 50 more patients by Nov. 1, bringing the total residents to 72, down from 345 five years ago. By next June, the hospital is to be shut.

At the same time, he added, the people being admitted are new to the system. Those turned out are becoming a problem for the communities they live in.

In Portland there has been a 23 percent increase in the number of mentally ill people hauled off to a local hospitals by police — if a bed is available. Last year Portland police took 890 mentally ill people to hospitals, up from 719 in 1990. In recent years, police around the state and Portland in particular have had to deal with citizens who use officers as a means of suicide.

The mental illness problem is growing, said Harold H. Kulm, president of the Clackamas chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill. He carried a placard with a large picture of Janet Marilyn Smith, one of two mentally ill people killed recently by Portland police. “Where were the beds?” his sign asked.

The killing and a similar one, Kulm maintained, would have been prevented if the victims had been in Dammasch or receiving care at a qualified mental center.

Linda Sievers, a member of the alliance’s Multnomah County board, cited the Saturday suicide of Todd K. Calhoun, 34, in the Justice Center Jail as another example of what is wrong with the state’s mental health system.

Both blamed the cutback in the the state’s mental health care programs for part of the problem.

Often, Kulm said, a mentally ill person will be hauled around in a patrol car for three or four hours in handcuffs because no one wants him and he often winds up in jail.

“All we want is parity,” Kulm said. “No one would think of turning away a stroke or heart attack victim at 2 or 3 a.m. as is done in mental cases. Mental illness is a disease just like diabetes.”

“It’s ludicrous to close Dammasch. What are they going to do with the people left in there? What are they going to do with the new ones coming on the scene?” he asked.

Tamara Hancock of Lake Oswego said she was glad her schizophrenic brother, Glenn, was living in Colorado instead of Oregon.

Sievers, whose son, Clark, has a mental problem, called the cutbacks in the state’s mental health care a symptom of the “erosion of the social consciousness of the country.”

The mentally ill need a place that gives them a safe environment, a place where they can be encouraged, not a jail, Sievers said.

She called the deaths of the three mentally ill people a tragedy and urged police forces to copy Memphis, Tenn., in having a person trained in mental health on every team responding to a mental case.

“Mental illness is a faceless disease that no one wants to acknowledge,” Sievers said. “One in four families has some sort of brain disease. It can be a depressive mood or schizophrenia. They are all treatable.”

“Many don’t become mentally ill until their late teens or early adulthood,” Sievers said. “People don’t acknowledge them or the problem. They turn their cheek. We just want to make people aware of the problem.”