June 20, 2011

 Ashleigh Brenton knows first-hand the difference the new Multnomah County Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center can make.

Earlier this month, Ashleigh graduated from Portland State University with double degrees in women’s studies and social science.

But more than a decade ago, as a community college student, she had a psychotic episode – the first of her life – that left her jailed, hospitalized in the Oregon State Hospital and with a felony on her record.

“Had this program been available to me, it would have helped so much,” the 55-year-old Ashleigh told about 110 people at the crisis stabilization center’s open house on Thursday, June 20. “I cannot help think what might have been for the state of Oregon and my life had a facility like this been serving our community in 2002.”

Ashleigh knew nothing about mental illness when she began experiencing severe paranoia and delusions in June 2000. The sunny, outgoing mother was attending Mt. Hood Community College, starting over as a college student in her mid-40s.

Although the direct causes of paranoid schizophrenia are unknown, she was recovering from a broken neck and had been taking diet pills when she abruptly began to believe that the people she came in contact with were planning to torture and kill her and her daughter.

Her fear was so convincing that when she did drop out of sight, her family filed a missing persons report believing that she’d been murdered.

Instead, overcome with terror and delusional thoughts, she fled her apartment with her computer, cell phone and important papers. She threw those items off the Morrison Bridge. She recalls wanting to jump into the Willamette River after them, but feared the fall wouldn’t kill her and she would instead be captured by bad men and sold into prostitution. Her irrational thoughts racing, she jumped in her station wagon and drove away, stopping to buy gas.

But when the gas station attendant came to her car window for the $10 payment, she thought he was part of an abduction plot and sped away.

“He was hanging on the outside of my car, holding on as best he could,” Ashleigh recalls. “I was terrified.”

She swerved trying to sideswipe the attendant away until he fell several blocks later, the Portland Police in pursuit. Ashleigh didn’t stop until officers crashed their car into her station wagon, pushed her to the ground and handcuffed her at gunpoint.

She spent nearly three months in jail untreated before the court ordered her to the Oregon State Hospital in Salem under the supervision of the Psychiatric Security Review Board.

There, it took only a few weeks for treatment – in her case medication – to stabilize her mental health. After several months, she was deemed well enough to move back into her apartment and resume her studies. She had a setback and was hospitalized again, her stay extended until a community treatment facility became available.

Once released, she resumed therapy and classes. The grandmother of three pursued bachelor’s degrees in fields she knows will help others.

Ashleigh also became an activist and advocate, working to help others with mental health issues find self respect and regain productive lives. She credits the wisdom and help of PSU women’s studies’ professors, a Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare caseworker and medical professionals with her success.

Finding mentors and peers who counsel and encourage others is a critical component of the new center, she says. Even as a recent graduate looking for work, she is continuing to help others. She volunteers one day a week for the state hospital in Portland and for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Multnomah chapter.

Standing alongside Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen and Portland Mayor Sam Adams at the CATC opening, Ashleigh says she wishes taxpayers knew how cost effective the new treatment center will be.

“It’s preventative care,” she says. “If we don’t invest in this, taxpayers are going to be paying thousands of dollars to keep people in the Oregon State Hospital when it’s not necessary. And you’re investing in the future of someone who can one day give back.” 

Watch video of Ashleigh Brenton sharing her story