Numbers of persons with untreated mental illness and addiction continue to climb in Multnomah County. Why? Is this a priority for you?
There are a lot of reasons why we’ve seen this number rise steadily over the past few years. I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you the county has been a victim of chronic disinvestment of federal and state funds as dollars became scarce during the recession. As a result, we had to try to make up that difference with our also-scarce local funds, and many programs and services across the board fell victim to cuts—and people went untreated. I also think that the county has been playing catch-up in the last few years scrambling to keep a baseline service level in most of its programs. We’ve been so busy playing defense that we haven’t had time to play offense: we haven’t developed ideas or resources for reaching out to under-served populations and letting them know that it’s okay to have mental health needs, it’s okay to have a mental health crisis, and there are great people already in place to help them address those needs and crises. This is a major priority for me because mental health plays such a huge role in the mission of the county: investing in people to create a community that is supportive and sustainable. We cannot begin to tackle issues like homelessness, poverty, or employment until we have a strong, reliable mental health system.
Increasing mental health and addiction services have not been a legislative priority for the County in recent years. Why do you think this was so?
I think the history that I mentioned above absolutely applies here. The county has had some major budget constraints in the past decade, and mental health has unfortunately fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, thanks to the passage of the new library district, the county is facing a no-cut budget scenario for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t fix the problem. We need to change the way the county thinks so lawmakers can understand that spending on mental health is a “need-to-have”, not a “nice-to-have”, and that investment in mental health services can produce savings in other sectors. For example, I have a simple plan for a mental health diversion system for our county jails that has already been successful around the country at reducing the people in prison that don’t need to be in prison and saving money in public safety and emergency services. It’s the caring thing to do, it’s easy to do, and it saves us money. More solutions like this at the county level will help us redefine the necessity of providing great mental health services in our community.
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Eds. Note – After an election filing deadline, supporters of the Mental Health Association of Portland query all area candidates of contested races about issues important to us and post the responses to our web site. Queries and posting do not imply endorsement; the organization does not endorse candidates. Spelling and typographical errors are amended because we abhor text errors. See all candidate responses at Candidates 2014.