Confronting Mental Illness

I don’t believe anyone enjoys perfect health, and I’m sure that holds true for our mental as well as our physical state.  We all have moments of anxiety or depression, but most of us are fortunate enough to get past our worst times and live happy and productive lives.  There are many among us, however, who are not so lucky.

My first professional exposure to this problem occurred when I was a young city administrator and I began to hear complaints about an elderly man urinating in public near our elementary school.  Our police investigated and found that the man was mentally ill and was living in dangerous squalor.  I started calling various agencies to see about getting him help and kept hearing that there was nothing that could be done unless the man would agree to get help or a relative could be found to act on his behalf.  I was finally able to convince a county worker to meet with him, and she was able to get his agreement to be placed in an adult foster home.  The reward for this work was that when the man came in to pay his final water bill in the company of someone from his new home our billing clerk reported she saw him smile for the first time. 

Smaller cities generally offer few services to the mentally ill and disabled except for emergency response and care.  Those of us who work at City Hall also have frequent contact with people who have problems or issues and don’t know where else to call.  Some of these people are angry and threatening, while most are just grateful to speak to someone who will listen.  I have received calls in the middle of the night from disturbed folks, asking me to fix problems ranging from garbage disposal to neighbors who won’t take care of their lawns.  A lady in La Grande would call me on occasion and use every obscene word she could remember (there was nothing wrong with her memory) to help convey her message.  I would try to make calm suggestions, and our conversations usually ended cordially.  She surprised me one day by delivering an afghan she had knitted for me.

Albany has taken steps to try to be more responsive to the needs of the mentally ill by training our police officers to avoid confrontations that could escalate into violence and by participating in various efforts to help provide shelter and treatment for those with mental health problems.  I know our police and firefighter/paramedics are often called upon to deal with extremely difficult situations involving the mentally ill. 

I also appreciate the good work of both the Linn and Benton County Health Departments in providing care, and I know the schools and hospital are increasingly involved in confronting this issue.   Despite the efforts of many concerned people, we too often hear of suicides and other tragedies particularly affecting younger members of the community.  I believe we need to confront mental illness rather than fear its stigma and recognize that treatment offers the most hope for those suffering its effects.