We’ve heard it time and time again: There needs to be more help for people who are struggling with mental illness. But now it looks like a change may be on the horizon.
Construction on the new Unity Center for Behavioral Health is set to start this fall. If all goes according to plan, by November of next year people dealing with mental illness will have a new, more specialized, place to go if they need help.
Beckie Child is no stranger to mental illness. She’s been struggling with it her entire life. The depression, suicidal thoughts and paranoia started when she was just a kid.
“You often feel like you’re the only person in the world that’s experiencing what you’re experiencing,” said Child.
Child is an adjunct college professor and mental health advocate. She said she’s been hospitalized more than 20 times over the course of her life.
“There’s not a hospital here currently that I would want to be a patient in,” she said.
But four local health systems, Adventist Health, Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health and Oregon Health & Science University, are coming together to try and change that.
“We are creating the first comprehensive psychiatric emergency service for the Portland metro area,” said Chris Farentinos, the Director for Behavioral Health for Legacy Health.
The Unity Center for Behavioral Health will be located in the former site of the Oregon State Hospital in Northeast Portland. The goal is to better serve people with mental health issues. Right now someone who has a mental health crisis has to go to the emergency room, a place Farentinos says just isn’t equipped to deal with mental illness.
“It’s not equipped for someone that is having suicidal thoughts…or maybe a psychotic break,” she said.
Unity Center aims to keep people out of the ER with more specialized mental health care.
While Child agrees that an emergency room isn’t the right place for someone dealing with a mental health crisis, she’s not sure the new facility will help.
Child said she’s concerned about how staff will treat patients, and other advocates said they don’t want it to be a cold, institutional place.
“We want Unity to be very warm, a place of hospitality,” Farentinos said.
She said people can be paired with others who have gone through similar circumstances. Instead of having patients in separate rooms, they can interact with each other and peer support staff.
“So it’s much more humane and much more hospitable. It’s almost like a big living room,” said Farentinos.
She added that there will also be an emphasis on making sure the patient transitions to the next phase of care that they need.
Child, while skeptical, said she hopes it’s everything it’s expected to be.
“I hope it’s a place where people are treated with respect and dignity.,” Child said.
The new space will have 79 beds for adults and 22 beds for adolescents struggling with mental illness and it’ll be open 24-7 for anyone who needs help. Farentinos said the number of adolescent beds have increased by six, but the number of adult beds went down by 11. She said that’s because they feel they’ll have the resources to better address the needs of adults with mental health issues.
There’s currently a fundraiser underway trying to raise $40 million to help build the facility. The Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust has donated $20 million to the cause. Farentinos said they have raised $30 million now and have $10 million to go.
“We’re hoping that with what we’re able to accomplish here, we’re able to become a model for the rest of the country,” said Marcia Randall with the Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust.