Our Open Letter on Assaults at the Oregon State Hospital

OSH fenceFeb. 11, 2014

To: Greg Roberts, Superintendent, Oregon State Hospital

From: Mental Health Association of Portland

The Mental Health Association of Portland is Oregon’s impartial advocate for people with mental illness and addictions. We have a continuing interest in various aspects of the Oregon State Hospital.

We would like to offer our perspective on the issue of assaults at the hospital, which are currently being entirely mischaracterized by the media.

First, complaints of violence at the state hospital are nothing groundbreaking. We have heard this before — repeatedly. The issue comes to the attention of the media cyclically, and has for many years, originating from union representatives. We suspect this is true for every comparable institution across the country.

Second, it is important to recognize that disability rights advocates, such as Disability Rights Oregon, do not represent the unified and complete voice of persons with a diagnosis of mental illness. No one does — and the leadership of Disability Rights Oregon would be the first to say so.

Third, after listening to hundreds of current and former patients of the hospital, we submit that patients should only be held accountable for their violent actions if staff is held equally accountable for their own. Furthermore, if Oregon State Hospital is keeping count of assaults on staff by patients, it is incumbent upon them also to track assaults on patients by staff, and produce both sets of data equally, without preference, across the board — online, in published materials, in public gatherings, to the media, and in presentations to professional and direct care staff.

Finally, if Oregon State Hospital calls Salem police to investigate assaults on staff by patients, you must assure the community you and your colleagues will make an equal and impartial effort to bring police into the hospital to investigate assaults on patients by staff.

We have seen the photographs online of staff members who have been assaulted by patients — they’re terrible. No violence can be justified.

But mental illness is real, and symptoms of illness, such as uncontrollable moods and thoughts and feelings, are real. Equally real are laws and policies which protect the rights of patients to refuse treatment. Unwanted medical treatment is a form of assault, and coercion or threats of unwanted medical treatment are attempted assaults — and not just when medication, seclusion or restraints are employed, in all instances.

Everyone at the hospital — both patients and staff — must be given respect and safety, so patients can get better and staff can do their jobs. Managing these conflicting issues is your task.

We have seen recent statistics from the Oregon State Hospital, and we’ve heard that patient-on-staff assaults have been radically reduced by the renovated buildings, new staff and training, new management, and perhaps by other changes only perceptible inside the walls. So we’re encouraged, and believe a non-violent state hospital is a worthy and attainable goal.

But without equality of investigation and prosecution of both patients and staff members, any attempts to amend the problem will only serve to criminalize mental illness yet again, leave the hospital a dangerous place to live and work, make a circus of the important work of treatment and recovery, and, incidentally, guarantee lifetime employment for psychiatric jailers.