Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran renewed her call for more access to mental health services at the annual NAMIWalks Luncheon. The event, sponsored by the National Alliance for Mental Illness, brings together prominent speakers from the mental health community to help raise awareness and funds benefiting mental health programs in Oregon
Meieran has been a longtime collaborator with NAMI, which provides mental health education and support to millions of Americans. It was founded as a grassroots effort in 1979, and since has grown into a network of hundreds of chapters across the country. The County partners with the local chapter, NAMI Multnomah, to raise awareness about mental health in Multnomah County.
In the packed banquet room, Commissioner Meieran shared her experiences as an emergency room doctor caring for people hospitalized because of their mental illness, and called for improved mental health care in Multnomah County.
Meieran recounted a recent instance where she witnessed two 13-year-old girls languish in the emergency department for nearly two weeks. They needed access to an inpatient residential facility, but there wasn’t enough space in the community to meet their needs.
“People often stay in the E.R. for days, or even weeks, because we don’t have a safe, stable place for them to go,” she said. “We can and must do so much better.”
In an effort to improve mental health services in Multnomah County, Meieran advocated for county funding to conduct a comprehensive study to better understand the strengths, gaps, and opportunities for change in the current mental health system.
The study, which launched in fall 2017 in partnership with Human Services Research Institute, has included community listening sessions and dozens of firsthand, in-depth interviews with residents and social services experts. The final results of the study will be published in April.
“I’m hopeful this study will point us toward policy change and investments that are actionable,” she said, “to ensure our mental health system provides high quality, coordinated care.”
Following Commissioner Meieran’s speech, the audience was moved by Dr. John Custer, a Kaiser Permanente physician and longtime NAMI volunteer. He shared the story of 36-year-old Andrew Holland, who died in San Luis Obispo County Jail in January 2017.
Holland, who suffered from schizophrenia, succumbed to organ failure after corrections staff bound him in a restraint chair for 46 hours. His story gained national attention after video footage revealed deputies treated him inhumanely. Holland also happened to be Custer’s nephew.
After Holland’s death, his family won a $5 million lawsuit which they used to create a memorial fund in his name. The jail also destroyed its restraint chair and permanently banned their use in its facilities.
“No one should die this way,” Custer said. “But Andrew’s life is not without a positive cause. There’s change happening. We’re going to turn this negative into a positive.”
Multnomah County to sponsor 16th-annual NAMIWalks Northwest
The NAMI luncheon also marked the fundraising kickoff for this year’s NAMIWalks Northwest event. The walk, which takes place on the Portland Waterfront, brings together thousands of community members each year in support of mental health awareness. The County is one of the event sponsors.
This year’s walk takes place Sunday, April 22 at noon at the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade near SE Water and Main. Community members and local leaders will gather in teams for a 5-kilometer loop around the waterfront. Proceeds will benefit NAMI Multnomah for community education efforts and mental health programs.