Clatsop County DA: “We need one or two safe rooms in this county”

Daily Astorian, March 11, 2014

missing-puzzle-piece-shadowMental illness, the right to organize, and the Oregon drivers’ card were just some of the topics that filled the air Saturday afternoon at the Astoria Events Center – sparking chatter, raising awareness and drawing applause for the important issues facing the local community. [Only the talk on mental illness is included here.]

Sponsored by the Clatsop County Democrats, with guests such as state Sen. Betsy Johnson, “Stand up! Stories” hosted 10 speakers for a three-hour event. The topics included upcoming ballot initiatives and governor’s initiatives, among others.

“The people in this room make a tremendous difference,” Johnson said. “You all are the ‘ground pounders’ who make the difference. You are the people that are willing to take a Saturday, albeit it a pretty nasty Saturday, but are willing to take a Saturday to sit in here and familiarize yourself with the issues, the talking points. You connect with your friends and your neighbors.”

Each speaker was given 15 minutes to share a story. While some stories garnered laughter and others brought tears – historian Rex Ziak drew both with his tale of saving an old growth forest in Pacific County – there was a common theme throughout.

“What we really wanted was an event that would be sort of like an afternoon movie matinée,” Cindy Price, the secretary of the Clatsop County Democrats, said of the day’s agenda. “We hope that you will be encouraged to stand up, speak out and act now on some of these issues.”

Mental health crisis

Price’s husband, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, spoke about mental illness and the lack of services available to those who suffer from disease. Without a mental hospital, or a safe room in either of the county’s emergency rooms, most mental patients end up in jail, “which is not a good place for anybody,” Marquis said. He spoke on the anniversary of his 20 years as district attorney.

“I want to start off by admitting that there is no such thing as normal,” Marquis said. “Each of us could be placed on a broad spectrum, that ranges in psychological terms as being so well adjusted you are like the Dalai Lama, all the way to people who’s brains command them, what we call command hallucinations, which tell them to do violent and often scary things to themselves or other people.”

Marquis said the vast majority of people fall somewhere in that continuum. And before labeling a person as mentally ill, he said, everyone has to recognize their own quirks. He himself has a few aspects of obsessive compulsive disorder and tested pretty high in the hypomania category, according to a true-and-false personality inventory test given to him in the 1970s when he began work at the district attorney’s office in Eugene. The test was given to cops in those days to ensure they could perform their duties.

As Marquis continued his story, he said the “shrink” told him, “‘but don’t worry, you’re not mentally ill,’ as he read him the results.

“My point is that for many of us, the very thing that gives us drive, passion or creativity may also be viewed in a cold clinical light as a deviation from normality.”

In Oregon, there is a remarkably free society, he continued. One that is very difficult to have a person involuntarily committed. There is an appropriately very high standard, he said. The person must be chronically mentally ill and be an imminent danger to themselves, an imminent danger to others, or unable to care for their basic needs.

“And yet, I watch with no small degree of sadness, I watch the sheriff’s office chain people up, just like you would somebody accused of murder, and take them from Astoria to the nearest psychiatric bed, which is often in Ontario, Oregon,” Marquis said. The drive is seven hours each way. “I can’t believe that’s good for anybody.”

Marquis asked the audience to think globally, but act locally. The county is in need of housing and assistance for the mentally ill, and safe rooms in the local hospitals. But it will cost a lot of money, and he encourages the county to prioritize the response. He encouraged all event attendees to come to the county’s budget meeting in May and convince the county commissioners that it is time to put some skin in the game. A few hundred thousand dollars, he said, could be used to hire locally based mental health professionals and to otherwise address the mental health crisis.

“We need one or two safe rooms in this county. We need housing for people who are mentally ill who can live independently with some assistance,” Marquis said. “But the big one is that the county needs to put some skin in the game. By which, I mean money. … It’s often been said that society is measured by the way it treats the most vulnerable.”