How to house the mentally ill

Editorial from The Albany Democrat Herald, January 1, 2012

What to do with people who are mentally ill is a question to which Oregon is still trying to find the best answer, and we have to hope that the new year will bring us a step closer to what needs to be done.

The recent Linn County murder trial of Josh Lee Shaddon illustrated one aspect of this difficult subject.

In a rage, this young man, now 33, stabbed his mother to death two years ago. He had no real motive. He had nothing to gain. He made no concerted effort to hide the deed or to make his escape. It was an insane act, and Judge Tom McHill properly found him guilty except for insanity and sent him to the state system for the mentally ill for life. Whether he is ever released will be up to psychiatrists and the state Psychiatric Review Board.

Whether the techniques of psychiatry, applied early and often, could have prevented this killing is unknown.

Now Oregon has to decide how and where to house people who are ill enough to require confinement.

State Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, co-chair of the legislature’s budget committee, points out that the state is about to complete construction of its new state hospital in Salem, with 620 beds at a cost of half a billion dollars. According to Richardson, the cost of operating it will be $211,000 per patient per year.

Next up are plans to build a smaller mental hospital in Junction City, scaled down from the originally planned 360 beds. Now the plan calls for 170, and the estimated cost to build it $88 million.

Richardson wonders whether that’s a wise expenditure. He suggests that the state instead might spend about $35 million to build “multiple” — he doesn’t say how many — secure community treatment centers of 16 beds each.

The legislator acknowledges that community centers — no matter how “secure” they are said to be — would generate heated opposition in Oregon towns. Albany had one such episode a few years ago. The Psychiatric Review Board tried to assure people that there was no danger. It opened the place but said only nonviolent offenders would be housed there.

Imagine the outcry against a neighborhood center for the criminally insane if the patients included people who had killed their mothers with a knife.

We do need community group homes for people whose mental illness prevents them from living on their own without restrictions. But that’s different from treatment centers for people who have committed homicides and other violent crimes.

It may be possible to scatter such facilities around the state, but the need to make them really secure precludes placing them in residential neighborhoods. Nobody wants 10-foot fences and razorwire in a residential neighborhood.

And even with such precautions, there is no way to overcome local opposition to neighborhood mini-hospitals housing people who committed homicides.

If there’s no room at the new Salem hospital for tortured souls who kill their mothers or anyone else in a fit of insanity, the state will have to go ahead and build the second one, just as secure.