Answering the line

Editorial by the Oregonian, January 11, 1997

On Monday, the Metro Crisis Line, whose volunteers have helped distraught people in the Portland area 24 hours a day for 18 years, will close.

That’s regrettable, but it’s hard to disagree with the Multnomah County decision that indirectly prompted the closure.

Beginning in 1994, the county decided to change the way it helps people in the midst of mental health crises. It settled on a comprehensive system and chose Providence Health Systems to run it. The new Crisis Triage Center was dedicated Thursday.

The county sent most of the $300,000 in mental health money that was going to Metro Crisis Line to the new center. That’s 63 percent of the crisis line’s budget, and the loss left it unable to survive.

In the era of Measure 47, the county can’t be faulted for trying to use scarce resources more effectively. County residents will get much better mental health crisis care. The system is integrated and comprehensive — offering professionally staffed, medically based services that range from a 24-hour telephone crisis line and a mobile crisis team that can be sent anywhere in the county to short- and longer-term hospitalization plus follow up.

The downside is that this may affect some people who experience other types of crises and previously relied on Metro Crisis Line. Only an estimated 20 percent of Metro Crisis Line’s calls involve acute mental health crises.

And the timing is horrible. New phone books just came out with the Metro Crisis Line number right there on the inside cover. People who call it after Monday will get a recording directing them to the Providence line or elsewhere. The crisis line is hoping that some US West goodwill and technology can create direct connections off the old line until new phone books come out.

There are some bright spots. Providence has said it won’t refuse to help anyone on the other end of its new line, and will refer calls that don’t involve mental health crises to other agencies.

Further, Metro Crisis Intervention Service, which runs the old crisis line, retains Community Action funding for emergency food and shelter calls — about half of the non-mental-health calls. It also will continue to contract with United Way for information and referral services and will continue to operate a crisis line for Clark County.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has agreed to change the phone number on the signs on major Portland-area bridges, although the timing is uncertain.

Other nonprofit agencies that provide crisis service as well as other social service agencies are looking at ways to help close gaps. These appear to be primarily in the areas of relationships, domestic violence and parent-child conflicts, which currently don’t lack completely for other options.

It’s true, and worrisome, that crisis response in the county will be a patchwork affair for a while. Metro Crisis Line is right to maintain its infrastructure for six months while other funding sources are explored, and to ask the county to monitor the situation to see what harm comes to people whom the new patchwork does not cover.