Lawmaker proposes mental illness database

From the Oregonian, February 8 2009

Barbara Thayer tucks a list into her teenage son’s pocket whenever he leaves their Albany home, listing his name, her phone number, some personal information and the simple fact that her son deals with bipolar disorder.

It’s a just-in-case sort of thing — just in case the 17-year-old were to get in trouble with the law.

‘‘My worry is that if he’s not stable that he could be — ‘‘ Thayer stops herself. There have been plenty of headlines in Oregon in recent years about mentally ill people killed in confrontations with police that make Thayer worry what could happen to her son.

‘‘I said, ‘Zac, promise me you will put this in your pocket and you will keep this in your pocket, so they will understand that you’re not on drugs,’” Thayer said. In 2006, James Chasse Jr. was wrestled to the ground when Portland police mistakenly thought the 42-year-old schizophrenic was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Chasse passed in and out of consciousness as police took him to jail and then to the hospital. He died later that night.

Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Andy Olson, an Albany Republican, seeks to give people like Thayer a little peace of mind. His bill would require the Oregon State Police to create a voluntary mental health database that would help law enforcement officials work with those who have mental illness.

As the legislation is written, individuals would have to give written consent to be included in the database, and officers would have to go through an hour of training to learn how to use it.

Olson, who was once a state trooper himself, calls the database ‘‘a fairly simple solution to a pretty big issue.’’

‘‘I understand now, it would have been very handy to have this information available to me’’ when he was a trooper, he said.

Oregon State Police, for the record, are neutral on the proposal, though a spokesman did point out that funding for the bill is not included in the governor’s budget.

Olson has been an advocate for this sort of database for a few years now. He tried to pass similar legislation back in 2007, but the bill failed.

No matter. During the interim, Olson set up his own task force. He was ready with a new bill when the 2009 Legislature convened.

‘‘I would really like to see this one go through,’’ he said.

Others, however, aren’t so eager.

Meghan Caughey, the vice president of Mental Health America of Oregon, praises Olson when she talks about the proposed bill. ‘‘I really believe that Rep. Olson is a very compassionate person,’’ she said. ‘‘I think his intentions are very noble and good.’’

But the legislation itself troubles her. ‘‘I do have some very serious issues with this bill,’’ Caughey said.

She’s worried it will perpetuate discrimination against the mentally ill, and that people could be coerced into signing up.

‘‘I know what it’s like to be in trouble, be in crisis,’’ she said. ‘‘I know what it’s like to know prejudice and discrimination.’’

At age 19, Caughey, who is now 53, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She’s been hospitalized more than 100 times, gone through shock treatments, four-point physical restraints, seclusion rooms — the list goes on. ‘‘That gives you an idea of the severity of the disabilities I’ve had.’’

Caughey’s been in recovery for 10 years now — ‘‘my life is a testimony that people can recover’’ — but she hasn’t forgotten what it’s like.

‘‘I think this bill would continue to separate us out and make us apart from the general population,’’ she said.

Instead, Caughey recommends a completely different approach. She would like to pair law enforcement officials with peer specialists who could help them work with the mentally ill. Those partnerships, she said, would lead to soft interventions. ‘‘I think it’s a more humane, more human solution.’’

Chris Bouneff, the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Oregon, shares some of Caughey’s concerns. But he’s more hopeful that, with some work, the database could work.

‘‘We’re willing to sit down and fine tune this,’’ Bouneff said. ‘‘The more successful we can make those interactions, the better off law enforcement will be and the better off those individuals will be.’’

One of the first amendments — Olson himself supports it — is a broadening of the bill to include people with other conditions including dementia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and epilepsy.

Like Caughey, Bouneff wants additional safeguards put in place to ensure the information can’t be used inappropriately and that when people sign up they are doing so under their own free will. ‘‘There’s a fine line, particularly if you’re somebody with significant mental illness, between voluntary and coercion,’’ he said.

Thayer, for her part, hopes that line can be laid out and that the bill will eventually become law.

‘‘My son knows that I have his best interest in heart and mind,’’ she said. ‘‘He wants me to be able to help him during those times. And I can’t help him if they take him to jail.

‘‘What would that law do for me? I could sleep at a night.’’

OUR COMMENT – This is a clever and terrible idea is grown within the vacuum of vision and leadership by persons desperate for a solution to a chronic problem. Beside the impossibility of managing even voluntary medical information within federal constraints, the disparity and discrimination of implementation, the departments and bureaus using such a database would need to either agree to a degree of liability for use of the information, or use it on a voluntary basis – which means it’s just a pretend fix, which is more dangerous than nothing at all.

Using the name of James Chasse by this reporter to promote this clever and terrible idea is misleading. First, we doubt James would ever agree to be involved with this sort of authoritarian intervention, and second, it’s clear from evidence the officers didn’t check their own SWIS database prior to targeting James and beating him to death.