On her recent night shift at Portland’s Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center, peer counselor Ashleigh Brenton, 56, was making 15-minute checks on a suicidal patient when another patient came running up to her crying.
Brenton didn’t have long to handle the situation before she had to continue on her rounds. The woman despaired that her abusive boyfriend wouldn’t let her back home.
“You’re going to have to listen to me,” Brenton told the sobbing woman.
She was straightforward, but firm: It’s good, she told the woman, that you can’t return to the man who harmed you because you shouldn’t. There are places to go, such as a women’s shelter, but you have to make an effort to find support.
“When we have hard times” Brenton recalled telling her, “it’s not forever.”
Brenton is one of the paid peer support counselors who work at the center — they’re a key component in the treatment. Two peer support counselors work each shift.
“Peer supports in a non-confrontational environment really are extremely effective in having people heard and understood,” said Dan Clune, the center’s administrator. “It grounds and normalizes people. They now recognize they’re not too outside the norm in their thinking.”
Brenton later shared her own story with the woman: How she was a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence who suffered a broken neck at the hands of her husband in 1997. How years later, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and suffered a psychotic episode that led to her arrest.
Driven by delusions, she fled her apartment June 10, 2000, with her computer and important papers. She borrowed someone’s cell phone, but took off with it, throwing everything she had with her off the Morrison Bridge. She drove around the city, thinking people were after her — including the Northeast Portland gas station attendant who reached into her car to take her $10. She thought he was attacking her and sped off, leaving him clinging to her car before he jumped free.
Portland police chased her car and stopped her, ordering her to the ground at gunpoint. She refused, thinking they were imposters. Officers had to force her down and then arrested her. She pleaded guilty except for insanity to robbery and assault, and was committed to the Oregon State Hospital.
Once on medication, Brenton was able to resume a stable life. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Portland State University and now works full time to help others at the crisis center.
“To me, it’s people’s lives at stake here,” Brenton said. “I want them to have a quality of life, and I tell them they can.”
She wishes such a center had been around years ago when she was severely troubled, she said. Instead, her four years of hospitalization cost Oregon taxpayers $164,141, documents show, and she has Measure 11 felony crimes on her record, she said.