As Oregon grapples with the pandemic, a mental health crisis continues to rage in a state that has long had a shortage of options for parents who need for their children.
Oregonians who have witnessed firsthand the inadequacies of the system shared their stories on Tuesday at an event organized by the Oregon Health Forum, an affiliate of The Lund Report. The virtual event focused on mental health care and children, drawing about 350 viewers.
Even before the pandemic hit Oregon, the state’s behavioral health system was underfunded and difficult for residents to navigate. Oregon consistently ranks at or near the bottom in studies that look at access and availability of mental health services. Now, as many people stay at home and many schools are online-only, children are more isolated than before, with less access to activities and fewer social interactions.
That can lead to dire consequences, several panelists said.
Michael Sorensen, director of business development at Cedar Hills Hospital, which treats mental health patients, said youth suicide for him is personal. Sorensen said he tried to kill himself three times as a teen. Struggling with his sexual identity, he silently endured homophobia while growing up in a strict religious household. He was alone, with no one to turn to so he looked for a way out.
He only saw one choice, one that he said children should not have to consider.
He wept as he remembered what he went through. It could have turned out so differently. No one was aware he needed help until he tried to end his life.
“I was dead by the time we got to the hospital,” he said.
He said it took him a long time to realize and accept it was alright for him to be gay.
For Sorensen, his journey and the help he received included hospitalization, finding medication, caring teachers in school and informal foster care.
But it’s not easy to find those services, and often children fall through the cracks. Oregon ranks dead last in a Mental Health America report about access to behavioral health services. Sorensen’s experience was 36 years ago. He said he would have fared worse in the current system.
"I would be dead if it was today," he said. "There's only 20 beds available in the whole freaking state for kids."
The state lacks the capacity to deal with its mental health crisis among young people. In 2018, 129 Oregonians 24 and younger committed suicide, according to Oregon Health Authority statistics. That year, it was the leading cause of death for people between 10 and 24 years old.
Cedar Hills Hospital is a 98-bed facility in Southwest Portland owned by Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services. The company wants to build a psychiatric care facility in Wilsonville and has gone back and forth with the Oregon Health Authority on application issues since 2016.
Advocates and politicians signed a letter of support in April. Read full story
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