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[Dave Dahl is the founder of Dave’s Killer Bread, the author of The Good Seed, and a longtime mental health advocate. In the following guest editorial, Dahl talks about the pressing need for Oregon to improve the way it provides mental health services.—eds]

I am not an innocent. I am an ex-con with many drug-related offenses. But my story would be vastly different if Oregon provided ample access to mental health services and resources, especially for addicts.

For me, what should’ve been an evening under supervision at an inpatient facility, with subsequent treatment for a bipolar episode, unnecessarily and irrationally resulted in disaster. When I should have been placed under medical care to be stabilized, I was treated like a violent criminal. Instead of receiving care from a mental health professional trained to respond to people in crisis, I was arrested.

I’m currently on an indefinite period of “supervision” with all of its restrictions. I’m considered a “violent offender” and the state has tasked a board with keeping me in line to protect the community. And yet many experts would agree that I’m in the category of least likely to offend—and that the circumstances and spirit of that day will never happen again (let alone the fact that I was not “violent” to begin with).

After being released from prison in 2005, I created Dave’s Killer Bread and worked very hard to grow one of the most successful Oregon brands in recent history. I am not only incredibly proud of the business I built, but also the company’s continued substantial and positive impact on the community.

It’s a complicated point that I make—and a complex problem in general. While a lot of progress has been made, we have a long way to go. So how do we get there?

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Have you ever tried to help a friend or family member experiencing psychosis? It’s a terrifying and lonely experience for everyone and, unfortunately, a reality for too many of us. There are far too few psychiatric beds, too few providers, and a labyrinth of choices and decisions that spotlight the inequity between how people with mental health and physical health challenges are treated.

Governor Brown’s stay-at-home order has brought Oregon’s mental crisis out of the shadows. For years, Oregon has been ranked worst in the nation when it comes to providing mental health services to adults who need it the most... and it shows. The suicide rate continues to climb, and the crises of homelessness and addiction reveals itself at every street corner in both urban centers and rural towns.

Our mental health system’s response to the first major pandemic in generations has forced us to recognize these glaring disparities. Recent studies show a spike in rates of anxiety, depression, and stress. Suicide hotlines have reported a rise in call rates. Domestic violence calls have also dramatically increased. Those pursuing treatment or on the path to recovery from addiction have been met with unexpected roadblocks to treatment. We simply don’t have enough resources to meet the demand required to keep Oregonians mentally healthy. In the entire state, we have only 70 psychiatrists with a subspecialty in treating children. This is not enough care even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic.

Ask anyone seeking help in rural or urban Oregon: We lack the necessary access to mental health services. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national survey data from 2015 states that only about 10.9 percent of Oregon drug addicts receive the treatment they require.

I have personally experienced the failures of our state’s mental health system, and I am ready to see a change in headlines. I’d like to see our leaders put politics aside and partner with hospitals, organizations, and advocates. I’d like to hear stories that suggest progress is being made. Mental health isn’t a political issue, and it’s definitely not a progressive or conservative cause. Mental illness spans all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, and geographic areas.

More than 800 Oregonians died by suicide and overdose in 2019 alone. We can invest in and support additional inpatient mental health facilities, adequately fund county services, and listen to those who have lived through Oregon’s mental health system. Oregon has been at the bottom of the mental health rankings long enough to know what we’re doing isn’t working—so let’s figure out our own way to fix it.


More guest editorials:
"Even If Offered a Loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, I Probably Won't Take It"
Opening Hotels to the Homeless Could Prevent Further COVID-19 Tragedy
Oregon Must Act to Support Mental Health Care During COVID-19
Save Our Music Venues—Save Our Souls