Civil commitment laws are the process where judges must decide whether a person accused of being mentally ill should be required to accept mental health treatment.
Jerri Clark, a Vancouver mother who lost her son to suicide after a long battle with mental illness, became an advocate for assisted outpatient treatment through the group Mothers of the Mentally Ill.
She says she lost her son three times: first to bipolar disorder which he struggled with for years experiencing psychotic features, second to the system which she says is not designed to prevent tragedy but rather requires it, and finally to suicide.
“I learned in the hardest way possible that the system is not built to support and protect people who get as sick as my son,” she said. “The cobbled together system that is more of a set of unintended consequences than anything that was ever designed to really help people.”
But, Clark says the assisted outpatient treatment in Oregon needs better infrastructure and programming.
“Families in Oregon need legislators to improve the laws so that their loved ones can be helped before the family falls apart, before somebody gets hurt, before somebody is criminalized.”
Oregon Commitment to Change is a function of the state judicial department where a 21-person panel reviews laws related to involuntary commitment.
Assisted outpatient treatment calls on the courts to work with the medical system to come up with a compassionate way to help people before they become dangerous or suicidal.
“When my son died, I knew how desperately ill he was, but he didn’t meet criteria for involuntary care until he stepped off the roof of a hotel and plunged to his death, Clark said. “That’s when he met criteria. That’s when the dangerousness standard was met. So the system, in effect, is designed to require tragedy. It is not designed to prevent tragedy.”
But what can Oregon do to improve its assisted outpatient treatment program? One big sticking point is access to care.
Many times, someone is only involuntarily committed after a crime has already occurred.
There are only 700 beds in the Oregon State Hospital and 98% of patients are sent there by the criminal justice system.
Clark says she brings the family perspective to Oregon Commitment to Change meetings, gathering input from other families who have experienced how disappointing the system is to people seeking care.
“My son died of a treatable illness and the fact that the system watched him die of a treatable illness is unconscionable.”
The next meeting for Oregon Commitment to Change is set for next month.