As a teenager, Lynn Smith-Stott was admitted to a state hospital. But she came away more traumatized than helped.
“Mostly shame and secrecy was the takeaway for me and my family,” she told the Board of Commissioners on Thursday during a proclamation to recognize Mental Health Month.
A few years later, she entered recovery for an addiction. She celebrated her sobriety milestones with cake and applause. A few years after that, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But that road to recovery was different. It was layered with stigma, like something she was supposed to quietly live with. Smith-Stott said no to that shame. She gave herself an anniversary date — July 11 — to mark her turning point and celebrate her mental health.
“It was my darkest day, but fortunately there was a glimmer of hope and I was able to accept help,” she told the Board. “What I learned is that recovery is only possible when you give up shame and secrecy.”
Smith-Stott, quality management supervisor for Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services Division, spoke alongside other Division staff and clients in an emotional celebration.
Multnomah County observes Mental Health Month every May to increase awareness about mental wellness, mental illness and access to services. This year’s focus is on breaking the stigma around mental illness — and research shows one of the best ways to diminish shame is to speak out.
“As the Local Mental Health Authority, we celebrate Mental Health Month to share these important messages: There is hope. Treatment is available. And people can — and do — recover from mental illness,” said Ebony Clarke, director of the Mental Health and Addiction Services Division.
The nation first set aside time to honor mental health in 1949. That year, Dr. Kent Zimmerman, a mental health consultant at the California State Department of Health, spoke before the City Club of Portland. “The more we accept the fact that mental troubles are a disease, the more people will seek help,” he told the audience.
Chair Deborah Kafoury on Thursday said there’s still work to do.
“There are still those who wish it was 1949 and they could warehouse people in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “But I’m glad, here in Multnomah County, we’re accepting people for who they are and meeting people where they are.”
Tierra Howard thanked Multnomah County for providing services that could meet her and her 6-year-old son, Elijah, where they are.
Elijah was 4 when he experienced something traumatic. His mom didn’t know why, but Elijah became closed off and angry. He started acting out at school, and Howard worried that he might be developing attention deficit disorder.
His teacher at Head Start suggested Howard seek counseling.
“The way I grew up, you didn’t talk about these things; you shoved them under the rug,” Howard said. “And I’m changing that curve.”
So she agreed. The school counselor, who was white, connected Howard to Sharice Burnett, a counselor who is African American and works specifically with African American children and their families.
“I was immediately comfortable,” Howard said. “I don’t know if the school counselor knows what I’ve been through. I was just more comfortable with someone who looks like me.”
During early sessions, Elijah would play a game during which he was in complete control. After some time, he began to open up, talk about what had happened and share his feelings. Burnett told Howard her son didn’t have Attention Deficit Disorder. Many of those symptoms also appear in children with post-traumatic stress disorder, she explained.
Howard had to cope with her own feelings of guilt. “It was tough. I felt like I failed him, how did I let this happen? I was so busy with life, a single mom.”
But Burnett was there for her, too.
“She helped me see that you don’t have control over what the world does. It’s not his fault, and it wasn’t my fault,” Howard said. “My son today, he has no problem opening up. He’s bounced back. I’m just so grateful.”
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal thanked Howard for sharing her story. It made her think about growing up in India.
“When I was little, kids were told, ‘You can’t be angry.’ What right does a child have to be angry or sad,” she said. “Folks from my culture, we bring that here. It’s not just something from the old country.”
The presentation prompted commissioners to share their own mental health stories.
“I have a mental health provider,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “I can tell her anything without a fear that people are going to say, ‘You’re crazy’. Some skills I’ve learned is that a thought is just a thought.”
Commissioner Sharon Meieran said she has struggled with depression and anxiety as long as she can remember.
“Having you out there setting the example, saying you can be seen and be heard,” she said, “it’s desperately needed.
Commissioners also championed Chair Kafoury’s push to purchase a vacant building in downtown Portland for a mental health resources center.
The project will feature a peer-led day center for people experiencing homelessness and mental illness. The 2017 point-in-time count of homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County found nearly half of people counted without shelter self-identified as having a mental illness.
Local Emergency Departments and jails are too often the only option for people with mental illness who are living outside and experience a mental health crisis. For example, one in three detainees at the Multnomah County jail experience mental illness.
The day center would be one place that social services and police to direct people for access to basic care such as a shower and a meal, for connection to social services, mental and physical health services, and assistance applying for benefits such as social security and disability.
“I believe nothing is more needed than this type of facility that is peer-driven, where people need it, when people need it,” Meieran said.
“I’m so excited about the Bushong Building,” Stegmann said. “We should have that. If you need help, you should have access to that help.”
Leticia Sainz, manager of the County’s Mental Health Call Center, said sharing stories and being visible is a powerful tool for change.
“This really is about how we change stigma,” she said. “Stories are the way we change hearts and minds.”Sainz invited residents to join Multnomah County staff Sunday for the annual NAMIWalks Northwest, hosted by the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The walk begins at noon, from the Eastbank Esplanade, near SE Water and Main streets.