Oregon’s mental healthcare crisis fails most in need

1 in 5 Oregonians have a mental illness

Jason Peterson, 32, was shot and killed after an altercation with a Portland business owner, February 20, 2017. (Facebook)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Hundreds of thousands of Oregonians deal with mental illness, but the state’s healthcare system isn’t able to keep up with their needs.

One of those people suffering from a mental illness was someone who might have just been another nameless, faceless homeless person who died on the street.

Jason Peterson, 32, was shot and killed after an altercation with a Portland business owner, February 20, 2017. (Facebook)

But this man had a name, a family and a story. Jason Peterson was 32 when he was shot during a confrontation with a Portland business owner in February.

“People need to start realizing, hey, that’s someone’s brother – maybe that was someone’s husband – you don’t know who they are,” Jason’s brother Justin Peterson said.

Jason never chose to be homeless and never turned to drugs, but battled schizophrenia for years. The depths of his mental illness pushed the once-rock climbing, adventurous brother, son and friend to a life on the streets.

“I think they just don’t understand. They just think ‘Oh there’s another able-bodied person on the streets.’ They don’t understand what they’re going through and even I don’t understand what he was going through,” Justin said.

“People need to start realizing, hey, that’s someone’s brother – maybe that was someone’s husband – you don’t know who they are.” — Justin Peterson

High poverty, high unemployment, high homelessness and high rates of child mistreatment are pushing the mental health crisis to a critical mass.

“As our population has become more distressed and our mechanisms for treating mental illness have become more distressed, we’ve come to a point where we’re really in a crisis now,” OHSU Director of Child Psychiatry Doctor Ajit Jetmalani said.

While Oregon has average access to care compared to other states, the overall crippling state of mental health is becoming a state of emergency.

A homeless man bundles up on a bench in Portland. (KOIN)

In Oregon, 624,000 people have a mental illness. That’s almost 21% of all Oregonians, or 1 in 5. Federal and state health care budgets can’t seem to keep up.

“We tend to think about one-year budgets and single-year outcomes. We really need to start thinking about 10-, 20-, 30-year outcomes for our population,” Jetmalani said. “Then we’ll start making better decisions early on in the course of care provided to our population.”

Justin knows firsthand how bad mental health care is in Oregon compared to other states. His brother lived in Idaho for a while after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and Justin says that was the only time he saw Jason get better.

Justin Peterson feels that the legal system in Oregon failed his brother, who lived on the street while battling schizophrenia. (KOIN)
Justin Peterson feels that the system in Oregon failed his brother, who lived on the street while battling schizophrenia. (KOIN)

“He was on medication and came back and was living with my dad,” Justin said. “[He] was working a job and taking his medication.”

When Jason came back to Oregon, the illness consumed him once again. Getting help here became harder than ever.

Justin and his parents turned to Multnomah County to have Jason forcibly committed to a mental health care facility. It was up to a judge, but despite being diagnosed with schizophrenia in Idaho, the judge in Oregon declined to have Jason committed — ruling that Jason was “not a risk to himself or others.”

Jason feels like the system failed his brother.

“I don’t think it’s the people directly working in the system but I think the system that’s in place that they have to follow,” Justin said. “I think the laws need to be changed or amended – whatever needs to happen.”

“Both in emergency as well as long-term recovery for the people with mental health issues, it’s critical that they have stable housing.” — State Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer

State Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer is one of a handful of legislators fighting for change. She introduced a bill this session that would force the state to create more mental health housing facilities and centers.

“Both in emergency as well as long-term recovery for the people with mental health issues, it’s critical that they have stable housing,” Keny-Guyer said.

One of those centers, The Unity Center for Behavior Change, is already up and running in Portland.

“It’s different than anything you’ve ever seen,” Unity Vice President Dr. Chris Farentinos said.

Unity Center for Behavioral Health Vice Presiden Dr. Chris Farentinos. (KOIN)
Unity Center for Behavioral Health Vice President Dr. Chris Farentinos. (KOIN)

Considered the first of its kind, Unity offers 24-hour mental health services, psychiatric treatment, crisis counseling, mediation management — all completely devoted to mental illness, unlike a traditional emergency room.

“Instead of having patients in separate rooms like in a traditional medical emergency with a lot of noise and a lot of medical activity going on, what you have is a therapeutic calming milieu,” Farentinos said.

Unity, the place that might have saved Jason Peterson’s life, opened on February 2, just one day after Jason was arrested for sleeping in a doorway.

According to police reports, the arresting officer tried to tell Jason to leave, but Jason immediately responded with belligerence and a verbal assault. Not knowing the extent of Jason’s condition, the officer was faced with a choice: Send Jason to jail or hold him at a hospital. He chose jail.

Justin thinks his brother would still be alive if he had gone to a hospital instead. He knows Jason could be uncontrollably hostile because in Jason’s mind, no one, not even police or judges, could understand his struggles.

“They don’t care about their family,” Justin said. “Sure, a person might be like causing a lot of problems but you don’t think about all the people that care about him and you don’t know how they got there, to that point in their life.”