For Oregon’s mentally ill, finally a day in the sun

Editorial from the Oregonian, September 3 2008

It was, Sen. Peter Courtney said Wednesday, “the room of lost souls,” the cremains of more than 3,500 people stacked in dented copper cans in an outbuilding, that galvanized Oregon to finally move to replace the decrepit Oregon State Hospital and improve the state’s system of mental health.
Courtney was the featured speaker Wednesday at the ground-breaking ceremony at the state hospital grounds in Salem. It was an historic moment for Oregon — the first time in more than 130 years that the state has broken ground on a major new mental hospital.

This day was long, long overdue. What follows is an editorial I wrote after watching the ground-breaking ceremony on Wednesday. I welcome anyone to share stories about the Oregon State Hospital, or thoughts about its replacement.

A new beginning for the mentally ill

Hundreds of people, some wiping away tears, saw something Wednesday that had happened only once before in all of Oregon history.

This state broke ground on a new mental hospital in Salem.

This state has built a lot of schools, highways and offices over the decades. It’s built more than a dozen prisons. But it’s been more than 130 years since Oregon built a major new mental hospital.

So it is worth celebrating the ground-breaking event that state human services leaders staged Wednesday in the brilliant morning sunlight on the grounds of the state hospital. For those who have struggled with mental illness, this was a long, long time coming.

In fact, there was good cause to doubt whether this day, this strong new commitment to the mentally ill, would ever come in Oregon. This state has kept cramming patients into one of the nation’s oldest, most decrepit state hospitals — a fright house on a major street less than a mile from the state Capitol. Every governor, every legislator knew it was there and knew, or should have known, how awful it was. For a long, long time they were all too willing to look the other way.

In the end, it was Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat, who made us all stop and look at what Oregon persisted in calling a hospital. It was Courtney who flung open the doors to this horrific place, who showed us the room filled wall to wall with copper containers filled with the cremains of thousands of forgotten patients. It was Courtney, working with Gov. Ted Kulongoski and dozens of other legislators, who pushed hardest for measures to help the mentally ill and their families, including insurance parity.

Yesterday was a remarkable scene, arguably the most exciting moment for the mentally ill in the history of Oregon. With the soon-to-be-demolished hospital in the backdrop, several patients donned helmets and grabbed gold-painted shovels and stood shoulder to shoulder with the governor and Senate president, breaking ground for the first of two new hospitals costing more than $450 million.

Oregon now has enlightened leadership on mental health issues. Yet in every way, state leaders on Wednesday were digging in the soft dirt. It gets harder from here on. While Oregon builds the two new hospitals, the Legislature must fund and communities must accept scores of small new community facilities for the mentally ill.

If they don’t, Oregon’s new hospitals — and all the hopes for a modern, compassionate system of mental health in this state — will be overwhelmed on the day they open.

OUR COMMENT – The editorial expresses a stunningly lack of understanding about mental illness, it’s treatment, about the interests of persons with mental illness. It accepts as fact a shell game played on Oregonians – that new buildings bring health and welfare to persons with mental illness. They do not. Great psychiatric care can be provided in a wigwam. The building is immaterial.

Yes the buildings are old, decrepit, and they have been maintained that way by the same legislators the Oregonian editor applauds for now finding money for new construction in their political districts.

Here’s what’s happened. The state hospital has not responded to the devastating critiques put forth in a Department of Justice report distributed in January. The hospital is still troubled by recruiting or retaining good staff, and unable to get rid of bad staff. Medical directors come and go, The state legislature cut funding for mental health treatment increasing the number of people involuntarily incarcerated at the hospital, and counties statewide have followed suit.