EUGENE, Ore. — The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut spurred a nationwide debate surrounding gun control in our nation. The tragedy also highlighted the state of mental health in our country. It forced states to look at their services.
Lane County is leading the way when it comes to providing health care. Like many counties across the nation, it lacks the funding for prevention, which many agree is the most important aspect of mental health. And it is following short when it comes to its youth.
Our nation sat paralyzed as images of Newtown blanketed our television screens. A gunman opening fire on little elementary school students and their educators. Quickly the sadness at Sandy Hook Elementary school turned to questions of why. Many of those questions surrounding the alleged gunman Adam Lanza and his mental health. That turned into a nationwide conversation.
“The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut and also the Clackamas Town Center shootings has really brought mental health to a forefront of public dialogue, and that’s long overdue, and I’m glad we’re talking about this again,” said Teresa Davigo, Lane County Behavioral Health Division Manager.
Davigo says on average Lane County Behavioral Health serves about 6,500 different people a year that includes children and families. At any given time there are about 1,200 people who get mental health services at the clinic. Davigo says she’s most proud of the providers who are coming together to support the community.
“The shame is mental health disorders are treatable and most people who receive treatment for mental health concerns do go on to recover and lead valuable socially productive lives,” said Davigo.
But, she will tell you a major shift is needed when it comes to how people perceive their mental health.
“That we bring mental health into our daily routine, kind of like brushing your teeth and responding to our mental health and behavioral health every single day,” said Davigo. And just like brushing our teeth, she says we need to start young, which is why health officials say some recent findings in the Lane County school system that much more alarming.
“We say we support prevention, we don’t want this tragedy to happen, what are we doing different?” said C.A. Baskerville, Lane County Prevention Program Supervisor.
Baskerville says even Lane County knows what it’s like to have a gunman open fire on students. You may recall in May 1998, at the age of 15, Kip Kinkell murdered his parents and then went on a school shooting spree that left two students dead and 25 others wounded.
Fast forward 15 years and the violence is ever so present. Baskerville recently surveyed 6th through 8th graders throughout the county. Drinking alcohol is still the number one drug of choice and guns are definitely present.
“Even in Lane County there was a small percentage, but nevertheless there was some sixth, eighth, and 11th graders who took a gun to school,” said Baskerville.
Baskerville says in the past 12 months 10.2 percent of sixth graders say they had been threatened with a weapon on school property, 12.1 percent of eighth graders had been threatened, and 8.1 percent of 11th graders had been threatened. HE says the majority of the kids surveyed admitted to being harassed and bullied
“I wonder what are we doing what can we do more to help these kids? We need to do more on the front end, yes, and we need to make sure there are services available to people who need interventions,” said Baskerville.
She says Lane County also has a higher rate than the state average when it comes to young people who have considered suicide or experienced depression in the last year.
“Almost 10 percent of our sixth graders attempted suicide last year and almost 20 percent of our eighth graders,” said Baskerville.
And sadly Darlene Baker knows the absolute agony of losing a child to suicide. “She left a note at school on Thursday telling people what was going to happen. Unfortunately, no one took the note seriously,” said Darlene Baker.
Darlene’s daughter, Jennifer Baker, was a sophomore at Pleasant Hill High School when she took her own life.
“We are not talking to our kids about mental illness,” said Baker. “I myself did not talk to my daughter about mental illness, never gave her any indication that she could become depressed and what she could do with that information,” said Baker.
After their daughter’s death 15 years ago, Darlene and her husband started the Baker Foundation to help promote prevention efforts in Lane County.
“I have over those years seen a change where people are more willing to talk about it. They’re acknowledging that depression is something that our community is facing, especially with the diminished services that are out there for teens as well as adults,” said Baker.
But, that progress may be hampered because 4J schools were hit with another blow in March. Facing budget cuts, administrators decided to get rid of mental health programs in turn looking to outside member agencies and providers to supply some of those services. This decision has outraged a number of teachers and school psychologists who say the key is starting with the youth
“There’s lots of opportunities to be aware of and intervene before someone gets to that dark place,” said Baker.
“We need to put more money toward prevention more money toward mental health promotion,” said Baskerville.
What we are investing in, however, is our health care system. Oregon and Lane County are leading the way with the coordinated care organization or the CCO. Basically, it’s one integrated system in which all of the specialists are communicating about your needs. The left hand is talking to the right hand.
“So, a mental health therapist would put in data and could look at what’s happened for a patient related to diabetes,” said Bruce Abel, Chief Behavioral Health Officer for Trillium Behavioral Health Plan.
Abel says there is a profound relationship between our physical and mental health.
“The hope is that we can create a delivery system that provides the best service at the earliest point that a condition is being identified and then activate that patient and support that patient to feel responsible for their own health,” said Abel.
Taking responsibility seems to be the yarn that is weaving throughout the entire system. “It really is a community concern, and our community must come together and want this and really lift up this conversation to legislators, to lawmakers, and let’s get real about what is possible to individuals,” said Davigo.
If Newtown showed us anything, no community is immune to the tragedies of one individual who didn’t get the treatment they needed and decided hurting others or themselves is the only option.
“If we want to make a change at it, if we want to have those numbers go down, that’s where we need to put our money, and we cannot continue to ignore mental health in this country,” said Baker.
Those KEZI 9 News talked with say another alarming find, when it comes to alcohol and drug treatment, most people are being referred to treatment from the criminal justice system. This means often times we wait until someone has committed a crime before we intervene with an alcohol and drug issue. Some wonder what kind of message this is sending.
Everyone KEZI 9 News talked with can agree on one thing–the community must be committed to looking at this issue and not sweeping it under the rug.