Insider view: Occupy Portland’s daily struggle with mental illness

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner

Occupy Portland: "We are the 99%."  (Image: K. Kendall /

Occupy Portland: "We are the 99%." (Image: K. Kendall /

Nat Holder, of Occupy Portland’s Safety Team, has a request.

“What we’d like,” said Holder, “is for someone to come onsite and do training” to help them deal with problems of mental health and addiction.

Holder is one of the points of contact for the team, which is onsite every day at Occupy Portland’s campground at Lownsdale and Chapman squares in downtown Portland. The Safety Team has primary responsibility for resolving crisis situations.

In a phone interview Monday, Holder talked about the kinds of situations the team encounters and their efforts to respond. He emphasized he was speaking only from his own perspective, not on behalf of Occupy Portland in any official way. But what he shared offers a unique view of some of the challenges of day-to-day life for the hundreds of people who have filled two city blocks in downtown Portland since October 6.

Unexpected Influx

Mental health problems came front and center for Occupy Portland early on. Large numbers of Portland’s homeless population were drawn to the site by the temporary moratorium on enforcing anti-camping laws, Occupy’s open-gate policy, and four free meals a day.

The surge of homeless people was unexpected, Holder said. “We had no idea.”

They’ve brought positive contributions, not just problems.  “Some people have been homeless and have been involved [in Occupy Portland] from the beginning,” he said. “Others come into our camp, perhaps just looking for a place to stay, but they end up getting involved in the committees and really doing work.”

Still, people coming off the street often struggle with mental illness and addiction. Most crisis situations Holder has seen result from people being intoxicated.

Although Occupy Portland has a policy against onsite drug and alcohol use, Holder said they haven’t been able to enforce it. The open gates mean they can’t prevent people from using off-site and returning drunk or high.

Defusing Crisis

Mental health situations aren’t always critical. For example, Holder said, “a person might decide to reorganize the clothing area. Or they have an idea to move everything around in the coffee café.”

In a case like this, he said, “we’ll have member of the team sit with them. We try to minimize the amount of damage, but also join them in their effort to be helpful.”

Other situations are more severe.

“If a person has pushed over a table, or there’s serious damage or violence to another person, we use minimal force to get them off the park. If that doesn’t work, we will call the police,” said Holder.

“We don’t tolerate violence.”

Holder said a serious crisis might happen once every two or three days — “more than we’d like” – but mental health problems are daily occurrence.

Dealing With Extremes

Holder, who is a student at the Process Work Institute in Northwest Portland and provides individual therapy at River’s Way Clinic, said his process work training has been crucial in understanding and resolving mental health crises for Occupy Portland.

He’s learned  “extreme states are valid. And just because a person’s behavior might seem illogical to an outside observer, to the person going through it, their actions are completely logical.”

Also, Holder said, “there’s a meaning to it. That needs to be validated. Disregarding the meaning for that person isolates them in their own world. When we join them, often they feel their needs are being met without having to resort to violence, and we’re doing that successfully in the vast majority of situations.”

Occupy Portland has emergency medical and wellness services, but they do not dispense prescription drugs or have a medical doctor onsite, and Holder said sometimes a person needs resources they just don’t offer.

Right now, he said, what they need is for someone to come to the Plaza Blocks and provide training on mental health problems, substance abuse and additional ways to deal with crisis.

Can you help? If you can organize a training, or you know someone else who can, contact Nat Holder at