Mental health forum calls on Portland

From The Oregonian, June 8, 1999 – not elsewhere online


Sandy Hayden suddenly sat up in her threadbare easy chair and focused on the television.

It was January, and President [Bill] Clinton had just announced plans for a White House Conference on Mental Health in his State of the Union speech.

Hayden, 46, thought immediately that the conference should include people like herself — people who live with mental illness.

She didn’t realize that Oregon’s reputation for innovative mental health services would mean that the conference would come to her.

On Monday, Hayden sat in the front row of the Providence Portland Medical Center amphitheater, one of three sites in the nation chosen for a live satellite feed of the Mental Health Conference. She was one of only 120 people invited to the Portland site to observe the first such White House event.

The administration’s stated goal: to attack stigmas, identify treatments and recognize efforts to improve the lives of the 50 million Americans with mental illness and their families.

The conference linked with Portland, Flint, Mich., and Atlanta, giving each city a chance to showcase innovative mental health programs. It was also beamed to 6,000 sites across the nation, including more than 20 in Oregon, from Baker City to the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

Tipper Gore, wife of the vice president, moderated the conference. She set the tone by talking about her own experiences with depression after her son was struck by a car and nearly died in 1989.

More than a dozen speakers told their stories, from Mike Wallace of TV’s “60 Minutes,” who has battled depression, to a young man with schizophrenia, to the mother of a mentally ill boy and volunteers in mental health programs.

“Mental illness is not just something that happens to other people,” Gore said. “This is the last great stigma of the 20th century that we need to make sure ends here and now.”

The president, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore used the conference to announce a dizzying list of public policy proposals: to provide parity, improve treatment, bolster research and expand community responses to help people with mental illnesses.

President Clinton announced his intention that all federal employees’ insurance coverage put mental health services on a par with physical health treatments.

“As a nation founded on the principles of equality, it is high time that our health plans treat all Americans equally,” Clinton said to applause from the Washington, D.C., audience at Howard University.

Oregon was chosen as a live link because of such initiatives as the Portland Police Bureau’s Crisis Intervention Team, which has trained 100 officers to work with people with mental illness to de-escalate crisis situations.

Portland Police Sgt. Karl McDade stood as he addressed Vice President Gore, saying: “Every night in this country on a street corner somewhere, there is a dangerous dance that goes on between an untreated, mentally ill person in a crisis, destitute, homeless, who is frightened, and a young policeman who is probably not trained (for the situation and) who is frightened, too.”

Hosted by Providence

Portland’s link-up was hosted by Providence Portland Medical Center, home to the Crisis Triage Center . The center, a public-private partnership, provides the only 24-hour emergency care for people with mental illnesses in the Portland area.

The Oregon Health Plan also helped the state secure involvement in the conference. The plan covers diagnosis and treatment for physical and mental illnesses equally.

Yet, despite Oregon’s innovations, the state’s private insurance companies still limit coverage for mental illness. A bill to reverse that is in the Oregon Legislature. Senate leaders have yet to give it a hearing.

Hayden says the failure to get private insurance to adequately cover mental health impedes her return to the productive life she led before she became ill.

Hayden, who has a master’s degree in physical education and a bachelor’s in psychology, had wanted to teach fitness as a motivational tool. She co-authored a book on the topic. She worked as a reporter while trying to write her doctoral dissertation in Georgia in the early 1980s.

Hiding the anger

But writing became a struggle. She forced herself to sit at her computer for hours, but she couldn’t concentrate.

She fought to hide the anger that welled up in her at work. She had always given more than 200 percent to her job. Now she felt the steam knocked out of her. She felt she had to quit. That was 1984. She hasn’t held a job since.

Ten years later in Oregon, her doctor diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. He said the illness is characterized by extreme mood swings, from intense energy and agitation to profound depression. For Hayden, knowing what was wrong with her was a relief. Finally, she said, “he had my story.”

She eventually found a blend of four drugs that help her manage mood swings..

Managing her own medication has helped Hayden regain her energy and sense of control.

She joined a state advocacy group run by people with mental illnesses. She became interested again in motivating others.

Now she would like to work part time. But she would risk making too much money to qualify for the Oregon Health Plan. Because private insurance won’t cover her therapy and medications, she needs the Health Plan to survive.

A new Oregon program that lets people with disabilities return to work and keep their public health coverage may help her. But Hayden wants private insurance companies held accountable.

In the meantime, she remains in public housing in a Northwest Portland high-rise, where the noise from neighbors and the light from the street keeps her awake.

Learning about the White House conference galvanized Hayden.

She started networking with other mental health consumers and their organizations. She wound up with three invitations to the Portland site for the White House conference.

Sitting in the audience Monday amid mental health specialists, state and local leaders, consumers and other advocates, Hayden smiled. For years, she felt she could tell no one about her diagnosis. Now she listened as people throughout the country told their stories to a national audience.

“If the wave you can sense from this can be cast farther and taken up by other portions of the country,” she said, “it will be absolutely wonderful.”