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DHS news release

June 15, 2007


Guest opinion for the Statesman Journal

Length: 500 words


By Bob Nikkel
Every time the state's 60 elected representatives convene in the House chamber, they see an inspiring mural on the front wall.

The mural depicts pioneer lawmakers who in 1843 drafted the terms of Oregon's territorial government, including what then were innovative means of caring for people with mental illness.

In the next 10 days, Oregon's legislators have another historic opportunity –- this time to deliver the most important supports ever to Oregonians with mental illness while also saving tax dollars in the long run.

Those supports are included in the Governor's recommendation to invest $14 million to help people with mental illness avoid crime, jail, joblessness, homelessness and other trappings of shattered lives, which too often lead to hospitalization in a state psychiatric hospital.

The Governor's recommendations would establish a critical statewide foundation of effective mental health services.

We know these prevention services help people with mental illness avoid institutionalization. Only recently, three Oregon young people who appeared to be likely candidates for hospitalization instead found life-changing paths thanks to early prevention services. One was a valedictorian at a mid-valley high school, a second earned a four-year university degree and a third completed a two-year professional program.

It is satisfying to know these young people, reached in the early stages of mental illness, are among more than 200 success stories in Marion, Polk and three other Oregon counties. With the Governor's budget, we have the opportunity to spread that success to many more counties.

Preventive mental health services also ease the burden on the public treasury: It costs approximately $1,000 per day to treat a community psychiatric hospital patient. By contrast, that money could buy perhaps three months of preventive services for a young person in the early stages of psychosis, often experienced as hallucinations, delusions and paranoia.

Perhaps 70 percent of the 700 patients in Oregon's state hospitals wouldn't be there today if we had reached them earlier with preventive services. And even that estimate may be low: A story in the May 18 issue of the respected journal Science reported that a British program, on which the Salem-area prevention program is based, actually reduced psychosis-related hospitalizations by 90 percent.

These measures are essential to ensuring that new state psychiatric facilities to be built in Salem and Junction City can control costs by admitting only those Oregonians who truly need to be there.

The Governor's proposal also would deliver employment supports, outreach and respite for people in crisis, more resources for Salem-area and statewide community programs, and assistance to county jails to help the large number of inmates with mental illness.

Mental illness's public cost and unnecessary damage to families can be reduced. It is well documented that jobs, housing and health care help people with mental illness.

The 1843 lawmakers at Champoeg understood the importance of caring for people with mental illness. With the benefit of modern early intervention and treatment, lawmakers in 2007 enjoy another excellent opportunity to salvage lives, save money and make history.

Bob Nikkel is Oregon Department of Human Services assistant director for addictions and mental health.