Mental health care: The sad legacy of James Chasse

From the Oregonian, June 30 2009

The author is Don Moore, board chair of the Multnomah County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2006 when James P. Chasse died in police custody in Portland. After Multnomah County announced this week that it would settle a lawsuit with Chasse’s family for $925,000, he wrote the following to The Oregonian:

Dear Editors, as a person who was asked to speak at the memorial for Jim Chasse, and the parent of a daughter who suffers from schizophrenia, the front page stories on the June 27 Oregonian are of particular interest. The proposed settlement is simply a reminder of the futility of the state of Oregon’s and Multnomah County’s efforts in dealing with the plight of citizens with severe mental illness.

“On the same page that we recognize the record settlement amount, there is a description under the picture of Bruce Hannah (in a story about the Legislature) in which the caption discusses longer sentences for drug and property crimes. To those family members with mentally ill loved ones, the threat of incarceration without adequate treatment is almost as bad as the present treatment system, which is, for many people, no treatment at all.

“One would think that some good might come from the Chasse incident, but there seems to be no meaningful reform. A 16-bed crisis treatment facility is almost worthless if people are to be released back into a system of community care that has no followup treatment. It does nothing to stop recycling and reprocessing those with illness who self-medicate and engage in criminal behavior from lack of treatment of their illness. Multnomah County will pay millions to operate a treatment facility that only treats people after the problem has escalated into a crisis.

“It may be proper to settle from a fiscal standpoint, but my preference would be to go through the pain of trying to understand what the real issues are that brought us to this point. As usual, it is easier to avoid the real problem than it is to have an intelligent dialog about what to do about the causes of the problem. Our answer seems to be that we are destined to recycle people with mental illness in a more humane fashion, but the real problem of lack of meaningful community-based treatment will continue to be ignored.

“The memory of Jim Chasse and our fellow citizens deserve better.”