Before I moved to Hermiston, while I was working for The Dalles Chronicle, a co-worker told me an anecdote about a homeless man with an apparent mental illness.
We both knew his name from his near-weekly appearances on the records page of our newspaper, always for some minor charge of disorderly conduct or criminal mischief after making a scene at a local establishment.
He had recently shown up at the regional jail, calmly undressed, and stood naked by the front door until the sheriff walked out, greeted him by name, and said, “Put your clothes back on, we don’t have any room for you today.”
So he got dressed and went on his way.
I thought of that story a few years later, when a young man with a mental illness showed up at the Hermiston Police Department, smashed a window out, and then asked to be arrested for it.
I don’t have all the answers for fixing our country’s mental health problems, but there has got to be a better way.
The opening of Aspen Springs, a new 16-bed psychiatric facility in Hermiston, is a positive development. But it took four years to open after Lifeways first broke ground on the project, and it barely makes a dent in replacing the 60 beds that used to be available in Pendleton before the state shut down the Blue Mountain Recovery Center in 2014.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely additional help is on the way for our mental health care system any time soon. As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the economy, the Oregon Legislature and local leaders will have to make cuts across the budget. The planned mental health and addiction-focused renovation of the Umatilla County Jail has already been one of the first casualties.
Full disclosure: My father is a licensed clinical social worker in Oregon, so I do have a personal bias toward advocating for more mental health resources in the state. But that call has been echoed by many of our leaders.
Hermiston Police Department Chief Jason Edmiston has frequently voiced his frustration that there are not more resources for people like those I mentioned above. At the Aspen Springs ribbon cutting, Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer said too many Umatilla County residents were ending up in jail when they should have been receiving treatment at a facility like Aspen Springs instead. During a recent town hall, state Rep. Greg Smith said mental health funding has become a new focus for him as he has gained a better understanding of the scope of the problem.
Acute care for people in the depths of a psychotic episode might be the most obvious place to start, but we also need more resources for our friends and neighbors who are experiencing less severe mental health problems.
Three times since I moved to Hermiston, I have had friends express to me that they were experiencing increasingly intrusive suicidal thoughts. In each case, they have not felt reassured by the options available to people in their situation, who were afraid of what they might do but had not actually taken action to harm themselves yet.
We also need to make sure that counseling is readily accessible and affordable for people who are experiencing less severe anxiety, depression, grief, addiction or other symptoms.
Unfortunately, this problem goes beyond a funding issue. There is also a shortage of mental health professionals available for hiring. That’s one of the reasons that Lifeways took longer than expected to open Aspen Springs, and during the facility’s grand opening, Good Shepherd Health Care System CEO Dennis Burke also stated that as Good Shepherd has looked into expanding into behavioral health, the ability to fill positions has been a barrier.
Oregon and its universities have created recruiting and incentive programs for other professions facing shortages in the past. We need similar efforts in behavioral health.
During the pandemic, mental health concerns have often taken a back seat to pressing concerns about physical health. As a state, and as a community, we can’t afford to ignore the issue.
If you are experiencing mental health challenges, please seek support from trusted loved ones and professional help as needed. Although our resources in the state are not at an ideal level yet, there is still help available. For a crisis, you can contact Lifeways’ crisis line at 541-240-8030 at any time, or for less urgent needs you can call their Hermiston office at 541-567-2536.