Cops are complaining, DA is worried, suicide risk is being ignored – and still there’s no crisis center in Clatsop County

The Daily Astorian, July 23, 2015

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis

Clatsop County DA Josh Marquis

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said Wednesday that the county is in crisis on mental health and that law enforcement is frustrated by a limited ability to help people in urgent need of care.

“We are not doing a good job,” Marquis said at a work session held by the county Board of Commissioners on c, the county’s mental health contractor.

Law enforcement, he said, is “terribly frustrated” in dealing with people who are not criminals but who often pose danger to themselves and others.

The district attorney is hopeful about a crisis respite center being planned for Warrenton, a possible alternative to jail or hospitalization, but said there are few options for psychiatric care or secure beds.

“We are in crisis in this community,” Marquis said. “And we are not providing the crisis services we need to.”

The county contracts with Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare for mental health services, using money that comes from the state and federal governments.

Marquis recommended the county spend additional money to hire mental health workers. The district attorney said the county needs “skin in the game” for the situation to improve.

“Unfortunately,” Marquis said, “the buck stops here.”

Emotional appeals

County Manager Scott Somers invited Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare to appear at the work session after emotional appeals to the county over the past few months to respond to potential gaps in mental health treatment.

Carrie Barnhart, a 54-year-old mother of six who had battled mental health issues, jumped off the Astoria Bridge in April. Astoria Police had responded to suicidal warnings from Barnhart four times in the months before her death. Police had pulled her from the bridge a week before her death and had taken her to Columbia Memorial Hospital, where she was evaluated by Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare and released after two hours.

A retired Wyoming police officer and Barnhart’s family have publicly pressured the Board of Commissioners for answers.

Confidence in services

Somers framed the work session Wednesday around whether the county can feel confident in Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare’s services, but the discussion turned into a description of the broader challenges in treating the mentally ill, not on Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare’s performance.

Oregon, like many other states, has struggled to care for the mentally ill as the treatment model has moved away from institutionalization toward a more community-based approach.

Social-service advocates argue that the federal and state governments do not provide enough money to adequately treat mental illness, leaving counties and cities with insufficient resources to handle people with complex problems.

Sumuer Watkins, the executive director at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, said the private contractor has increased the number of staff performing crisis services. The contractor has also worked to provide outreach to people in the community who are reluctant to seek help, in part because of the stigma of mental illness.

“The goal now is to catch people before they’re going into crisis,” Watkins said.

Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill into law in June that expands the definition of mental illness for civil commitment. The law now covers people who are unable to meet the basic personal needs necessary to avoid serious physical harm in the near future and are not receiving care to avoid such harm.

Performance measures

While Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare is already subject to state and county oversight, Scott Lee, the chairman of the Board of Commissioners, urged the contractor to also provide quarterly reports to the board on performance measures.

Astoria City Councilor Drew Herzig, who attended the work session, suggested independent evaluations to help ensure accountability. “It’s very hard for the agency to report on itself and be believed, at this point, because there is a climate of distrust,” he said.

Lee said afterward that he has confidence in Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare.

“I never lost confidence in CBH,” he said, adding he was pleased with the contractor’s report at the work session. “I think that it’s important that CBH gets out there and does some messaging.”