Mental Wealth 

Can Mental Health Advocates Find $6 Million?

The mayor's Mental Health/Public Safety Initiative Committee released an ambitious $6 million "action plan" last Friday, February 2, calling for things like a new short-term mental health care facility and housing and treatment programs—additions it hopes will prevent tragedies like the death of James Chasse Jr. last year.

Now, mental health advocates face an uphill struggle to get the money needed to implement their recommendations. While the mayor's initiative has built momentum and collaboration between the agencies responsible for delivering on its plan, mental health advocates remain cautiously pessimistic—they have sat down on three separate occasions to discuss the issue at a state and county level since 2000, and have been let down each time.

"I'm as skeptical as ever—but I think I'm going to be right, for some reason," says Beckie Child, president of Portland's Mental Health Association, who sat on the committee. "We might get a few dollars for a while but then they'll cut the funding and take the services away, and someone else will die."

The committee, convened by Mayor Tom Potter at the end of last October in response to the death-in-custody of Chasse, includes representatives from the state, city, and county, as well as advocates for those with mental illness. The February 2 report contains 14 recommendations to improve the mental health system.

But adequate community mental health care doesn't come cheap—four of the committee's county proposals come with price tags over $400,000—and there are no guarantees those around the table will be able to get the money needed.

So far, the mayor's contribution is the only part of the plan that's secure—Potter will stump up $290,000 in city funds to supplement the county's existing $2.5 million mental health outreach program, Project Respond. The city money, which will fund a dedicated group of outreach workers who will partner with the police, is in addition to Potter's earlier $500,000 commitment to fund crisis intervention training for all cops ["Money, Meet Mouth," News, Nov 2].

But over at Multnomah County, Chair Ted Wheeler is facing an overstretched budget—there's a $20 million shortfall in the county's general fund this year—and he's under pressure to continue funding other vital human services including SUN Schools, drug and alcohol treatment, and services for the aging and disabled. Nevertheless, the committee's action plan calls for at least $2.3 million in extra county money for the housing and treatment programs, as well as mental health nurses and court advocates for the criminal justice system.

The biggest single recommendation in the plan is for a $2.9 million state-funded "sub-acute facility" to provide short-term care for those in mental health crisis, instead of sending them to jail or the hospital. It will be up to State Senator Avel Gordly to lobby for the cash in Salem, which could take one to two years.

"It's definitely uphill, but this is a legislative session in which we'll be making serious investments in mental health reform," Gordly says. "I am seeing and hearing and feeling a new level of support and understanding for mental health issues in the capital. I am very optimistic."

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