SOMETHING IS—MISBEGOTTEN—IN THE STATE OF OREGON

In case you’ve been kidding yourself that public care for the mentally ill is snugly enfolded in the bosom of America’s state government systems, and monitored by informed, crackerjack news organizations, take a look at the peculiar string of factoids stumbling forth from Oregon.

mental health
Oregon Governor Kate Brown. Credit: By Oregon Department of Transportation (M15-132_1cm7866) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The factoids originate in a verifiable event. On Dec. 1, Governor Kate Brown announced her plan to close down the Junction City Mental Health Hospital, which opened with great fanfare just 18 months ago; boasts a 174-patient capacity, and offers employment to 422 people in a community that needs every job it can get.

That, as Dan Rather used to say, is what we think we know at the moment. Beyond this base, information remains sketchy, motivations murky, the announced rationale questionable, and the future of the facility’s patients up in the air, where the futures of such unfortunate human beings generally reside.

But why?

The governor herself—a Democrat, by the way, and thought of as generally progressive—has attributed the necessity to, brace yourselves, a tight state budget. Tight budgets are virtually always given as the reason for tapping into funds and facilities for mental health care, which in turn are virtually always the first areas to be tapped in a budget pinch.

But is Oregon really suffering a budget pinch?

Governor Brown pointed to a “projected” $1.7 billion revenue shortfall set against expenses for 2017-19. She intends to narrow this gap partly by raising taxes on cigarettes, liquor, and hospitals (a grouping that one does not often encounter). Yet a “Revenue Outlook” released by Oregon.Gov begins by reporting that “Oregon’s general fund outlook remains stable” https://www.oregon.gov/das/OEA/Documents/revenue.pdf and that revenues “are expected to total $19,526 million in the 2017-19 biennium, an increase of 8.4% percent from the prior period,” although $40 million below the September forecast.

So, again, to paraphrase Donald Trump—“Pinch?—or no pinch?”

Even if the Governor is drawing upon more reliable comparisons than are readily available to an outsider, it seems peculiar, bordering on bizarre, that she would choose the Junction City Mental Health Hospital as a first-round sacrifice.

Junction City opened to great applause and greater hope in March 2015, its features harkening back to the exalted “Moral Treatment” designs of the 19th century. (The cost was either $180 million or $84 million, depending on which Oregon press account you read, a testament to the quality of press scrutiny. As of this writing, no major outlet has done an in-depth examination of the proposed closing or the political dynamics behind it. My own calls and emails to Oregon reporters are as yet unanswered.)

Its rehabilitative amenities include a library, spiritual center, hair salon, fitness rooms, classrooms, a gym, and outdoor quads. Patients can go on outings (after a review process, learn social skills and money management, acquire cooking skills and learn how to call for help.

And in case those humane offerings might strike some taxpayers as a little—oh—cushy for people who are, well, you know; consider this: the alternative to clinical rehabilitation is, typically, jail or prison. These systems, dumping-grounds for an obscene number of afflicted people, add up to a far greater drain on public revenues than does rehabilitation. Oh, and by the way, they tend to be unspeakably barbaric. To the sane and insane alike.

In early May 2015, less than two months after Junction City opened, a public-interest group called Disability Rights Organization (https://droregon.org/bhu/) released a report that found “Oregon prisoners with severe mental illness are routinely tasered, pepper-sprayed, isolated, and denied access to adequate mental health care.” (“Isolated,” by the way, means “placed in solitary confinement,” the single most devastating assault prison guards can levy on a mental-illness sufferer.”)

As I write in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, this list of sanctioned atrocities has changed hardly at all from the horrors of Bedlam Asylum more than 700 years ago, save for the technology.

I will continue to monitor the developments surrounding Junction City in the coming days, and the bedrock reasons behind the governor’s decision. Meanwhile, the links below offer a fuller discussion of some of the points I have raised.

https://www.change.org/p/kate-brown-stop-kate-brown-from-turning-her-back-on-oregon-s-mental-health-crisis?recruiter=6278772&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=autopublish&utm_term=des-lg-share_petition-reason_msg

On the Road With Kevin

I just answered a post by dear friend from college and early-career days. He grew up in Sudbury, Ontario. He’s feeling a little down, like a lot of us, over the election, and expressed a wish to return to his hometown.

I don’t know that I managed to cheer him up, but his message reminded me of a passage from NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. It involves a night spent in Sudbury as I drove Kevin, then 14, from Vermont across Canada and then south through Michigan to commence his studies at the Interlochen Music Academy. I’m reposting it below. If not exactly a cheerer-upper, it at least is a reminder of moments of beauty that appear from nowhere, conjured by the fingers of a gifted child and his guitar. This was before Kevin’s fatal onset of schizo-affective disorder:

Kevin at Interlochen
Kevin at Interlochen

“That September, I drove Kevin the nine hundred miles to Interlochen. It was a memorable ride.

“We chose a route that took us north to Montreal, then westward on Highway 17 for six hundred miles, skirting Ottawa and then the vast and pristine Algonquin Provincial Park, its primitive interior saturated with lakes and moose. We ate hamburgers at a log-built restaurant and gift shop somewhere along the route, and it became our traditional stopping-place on future trips. Traditions were important to both boys, but especially Kevin. We stopped for the night in a motel in Sudbury, Ontario. At Sault Ste. Marie, we turned south into Michigan along Interstate 75. We crossed the Straits of Mackinac, linking Lakes Michigan and Huron, on the majestic suspended arc of the Mackinac Bridge that stretched five miles.

“Kevin was upbeat during the long drive, but he admitted to me that he was worried about meeting new people at the arts academy. For one thing, he said, he didn’t know any good jokes. I told him that jokes could be over-rated, and the best way to make new friends was to ask them a lot of questions about themselves. This went for girls too, I added. Girls especially.

“In our motel room in Sudbury, Ontario, I was unpacking toiletries from my suitcase. Kevin was sitting behind me on one of the twin beds. I heard acoustic guitar notes, and turned around.

“The lamplight brought out the gold in Kevin’s hair, and he was in his usual playing position, bent forward a little, head down, the sole of one messy sneaker planted on the arch of the other.

“The piece was short, but lyric, and haunting, like a medieval ballad, and as it went on I stopped unpacking and sat down on the bed beside Kevin and listened. When he had finished, and when quotidian sounds—traffic horns, voices in the hall, TV sounds in other rooms—had resumed their noise, I asked Kevin where he’d learned it and how long it had taken him to memorize it. He shrugged and said that he’d made it up as he went along. He was just doing some finger exercises.

“Some weeks later, walking with him around the Interlochen campus during a visit, I brought it up again. I asked my son if he could reconstruct that piece from memory. He gave an absent shake of his head; his attention, at that moment, was on a pretty girl riding a bicycle in and out of the sunlight. A temporary, beautiful, golden thing had passed through that motel room in Ontario that evening, and then vanished, a presence to be experienced only once, and briefly, and then never again.”