Comments to City Council about transfering calls from 911 to crisis line

To Portland City Council Members,

Comments in relation to consent item #492 from the Portland City Council agenda of May 9, 2012.

READ – Portland City Ordinance 492, from May 2012
READ – The Mental Health Association of Portland’s comments to City Council from May, 9 2012
WATCH – Council video from May 9, 2012

Portlanders share a problem – those of us who suffer from mental illness routinely contemplate and commit suicide. It is not a problem limited to our city, but its effects can be mitigated here.

The Mental Health Association of Portland offers thanks to David Hidalgo and the staff of the Multnomah County Crisis Center, to Lisa Turley and the staff of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, and to the Portland City Council and their staff – especially Commissioner Amanda Fritz, for thinking through a difficult problem and attempting the beginning of a solution.

Mental illness and suicide affect Portland’s entire community – friends, families, neighbors – people we care about.

To contemplate suicide is not unusual, nor does it indicate the need for police action. It is not, in itself, a threat to anyone. It is not illegal. It is a normal symptom of a set of common illnesses.

We routinely tell those in our community who are contemplating suicide, especially children and teenagers, to talk about those thoughts with someone they trust. The flaw in this approach is that the suicidal are reluctant to trust others. People with mental illness call 9-1-1 because they are desperate, but operators do not have the time to listen until the caller’s suicidal feeling passes. They are there to dispatch police, fire, and medical personnel as needed.

A calm and patient approach is, however, integral to the Multnomah County Crisis Hotline. It makes sense to simply transfer calls by the suicidal from the BOEC to the crisis hotline.

There must be discretion about transferring these calls. The confidentiality of the caller is vital to maintaining trust, and 9-1-1 and crisis workers must be able to determine who is at risk and who poses a risk to others.

The Mental Health Association of Portland would like to re-emphasize that suicide is not illegal. Attempting suicide is not illegal. Talking about suicide is not illegal. Mental illness and addiction are not illegal. When 9-1-1 operators relay calls to the police from persons who are having a mental health emergency, we have effectively criminalized mental illness.

With today’s vote, Portland’s City Council shows awareness of this inadvertent criminalization of mental illness and an intention to change it. We must ask, however, that you routinely review the capacity of the county crisis hotline to respond knowledgeably and resourcefully to Portland’s mental health emergency calls. The county’s provision of mental health services is, at best, spotty, and the inconsistent ability to recruit and retain competent mental health services staff is well documented.

Thank you again for your attention to this complicated problem.

Written and presented by James Mazzocco – Advisory Council member
Mental Health Association of Portland