We stood there strangely quiet. Nobody knew what to say. Sadness, shock and guilt filled the air. It was November 2004 and while touring the Oregon State Hospital, my staff and I had just discovered the room of forgotten souls.
Inside a small building on the south side of the hospital grounds, we found copper canisters stored unceremoniously on a series of shelves. Inside the canisters were the cremated remains of nearly 3,500 patients who had died at the hospital but who had gone unclaimed by friends or relatives.
They had been abandoned in life and forgotten in death. The horror of the cremains quickly came to symbolize the state of our mental health system. The shame of the room of forgotten souls became the impetus for change.
In the more than five years since that day, we have made great progress in improving our state’s mental health system. Change has not come quickly. Change has not come easily. We must recognize that we still have a long way to go.
Twenty months ago we broke ground on a new 620-bed state hospital facility set to open next year. A 360-bed hospital will follow in Junction City.
The new facilities are crucial to this effort, but the cornerstone of our mental health system must be made of more than bricks and mortar. We can build the nation’s newest and best hospitals but they cannot serve as the proper foundation of our treatment system if they are not properly staffed by well-trained professionals.
That’s why the Legislature in both 2008 and 2009 provided additional funding for new positions at OSH. It’s why the Oregon State Hospital is working diligently to fill those positions with qualified doctors, nurses and mental health technicians.
We will have to add even more staff in coming years. some will say we can’t afford it. I believe we can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing other priorities to crowd out our moral and legal obligation to provide the best possible treatment for those in our care who suffer from mental illness.
Right now there are many voices speaking out on the issue of mental health treatment in our state. They include state legislators, the Oregon State Hospital Advisory Board, advocate groups, OSH patients and the United States Department of Justice.
I agree with those who say that preventive care and community treatment are important facets of a modern and effective mental health treatment system. We must work to improve both of those elements in Oregon, but we cannot do it at the expense of a solid cornerstone.
Ancient builders conceived of a large stone as the crucial starting point for construction. Masons took great care in choosing, preparing and placing the cornerstone. Once it was set, all other stones in the structure were put in place in reference to it and without it the structure would not have a firm foundation.
Our first priority must be completing and properly staffing new state hospital facilities in Salem and Junction City to put in place a solid and a true cornerstone for the future of mental health treatment in Oregon.
State Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, played a key part in the Legislature’s boosting of the hospital’s 2009-11 budget to $324 million, a 31 percent increase, enough funding to hire more than 525 new employees. He previously spearheaded legislative approval of financing for a $458 million hospital construction program, now unfolding, to replace the antiquated facility in Salem with two new hospitals.