It’s Time for Transformation, Not Retrenchment

By Bob Joondeph, Executive Director of Disability Rights Oregon

In this essay, Bob is commenting on former Oregonian editor Jack Hart’s recent article, Insane choices: We, not the police, are responsible for the consequences of how we deal with homeless mentally ill, on the police shooting death of Jack Collins in the Hoyt Arboretum. We found Jack’s conclusion, that it’s acceptable to shoot a person who is frightening and perhaps psychiatrically ill, to be unworthy of reposting. Bob takes on Hart and his conclusion with both critical thinking and compassion.

In blaming the victim of police shooting for enjoying civil rights, Oregonian columnist Jack Hart is fighting the last war. Our challenge now is to realize the opportunities in health care reform to build a new community mental health system.

In today’s Oregonian, former managing editor Jack Hart comments about the recent police shooting of Jack Collins by Portland police. He concludes his article by putting himself in the position of the armed police officer and asks his readers to do the same. He says he knows what he would do if he were in Officer Walters’ place. Hart does not ask his reader to put themselves in Mr. Collins’ shoes. Since he has spent most of his article dehumanizing Collins as one of those deranged alcoholic, drug addicted, mentally ill creatures who defecate in our parks, scare our children and threaten our enjoyment of life, it is not surprising that he would find him alien.

To Mr. Hart, Jack Collins is a nuisance. He asks us not to blame the police but to blame the homeless and those who would allow them to experience choice and civil rights. He does not blame Oregonians who refuse to pay taxes to support adequate community mental health services. He does not blame Oregonians who fight the placement of group homes and halfway houses in their neighborhoods. He does not blame state leaders who push money into building huge new state institutions (and state jobs) when mental health professionals know that strong investment in local services and housing can head off the type of tragedy that occurred in Hoyt Arboretum.

In sum, Mr. Hart chooses the traditional route: blame the victim. I’d suggest another approach. With the coming of health care reform, we must transform our mental health system with a surge of funds into the community. We must not turn away from the data that shows that 20% of Americans experience a serious mental health disorder every year and that the devastating social cost of substance abuse is not limited to men who toilet in the park.

I will use this moment to make a bold statement. The public mental health system should be primarily designed to treat mental illness and chemical dependency. It should provide treatment, education, housing, employment opportunities and social supports to allow people to have lives in recovery. It should not be designed to create public employment opportunities, placate local public officials, reinforce social prejudices and enhance electoral popularity. Although, the popularity part might just work out if effective community services were ever put in place.

Let’s stop the old thinking and politics as usual and take advantage of this unique moment in history to make health care reform work for our common good. Transformation, not retrenchment!