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Long time advocate and psychiatric survivor Drake Ewbank wrote this article in close collaboration with and on behalf of the Lane County Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Council.

Those who know best get left out

Date Published:

Jan 18, 2007 01:00 AM

Author: R. Drake Ewbank

Source: The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA


The tragic shooting death of the mental health client Ryan Salisbury seems to shock and surprise the Eugene community. Sadly, it is not that surprising to those who have received treatment, services or a diagnostic label from the mental health system.

Widely publicized incidents in Portland, Tigard, Corvallis and Eugene have happened in the past six to eight months and continue to occur with alarming frequency. Clearly, many of the officers involved have difficulty de-escalating situations in which the subject is dealing with an extreme psychiatric crisis.

As it is, the story in each case is eerily similar, and is dismal as it is repeated: A person who is acting out and likely needs help is confronted by emergency responders in the form of an overwhelming police presence. The person, while in crisis or in a dissociative psychological state, is then effectively allowed to take his own life by refusing to stand down.

It takes a wealth of these incidents before people begin asking what mental health consumers have been asking for years.

Was it really necessary that the person die? Could the police have done something different or less lethal? Would better crisis training or knowledgeable support help? Are the responders shooting in reaction to a nervous uncertainty based on the fear of irrationality and unpredictability rather than of real danger?

Nowhere in the investigation is there outreach by the media, authorities or public to those who know what happens in these incidents better than any others - mental health clients and survivors of mental health treatment themselves.

Nowhere in the examination of the failures is a process that is well-informed by persons who have been there, and who actually may suggest what is most likely to bring a crisis situation to a less violent end.

In White Bird, CAHOOTS and other resources, there is already an infrastructure of crisis response tools available. And perhaps now these resources finally can combine with the articulated input of mental health consumers in ways that can inform and train officers to deal with people who are suffering through heavy emotional stress.

We, as the Lane Mental Health Consumer Advisory Council, strongly encourage this. We believe that our council long has been a relevant venue to raise issues of response standards and treatment effectiveness. We offer a place open to the public to have a significant policy dialogue and input. We support an agenda establishing responsible and informed policies and interventions, all tempered by real experience and deference to the least violent alternative.

Certainly, from a mental health consumer's perspective, there needs to be a different response mechanism than the one that killed Ryan Salisbury. There also need to be more diverse answers than just increasing the availability and strength of unsustainable dosages of anti-psychotic medications in hope that this can be traded off for behavioral suppression.

The community needs more sustainable, diverse and more user-involved mental health resources. The community needs a compassionate understanding of what those going through this experience may feel.

As most people know who deal with the population on the streets that includes the psychiatrically labeled, the community also desperately needs housing and resources for those least able to care for themselves or to participate in the private sector economy. Any increased support in these areas has the natural result of dramatically reducing the potential for confrontations with the law by those who are disenfranchised or homeless.

Inclusion is one of our best suggestions as to how to inform any method to stop people from being killed for panicking or being in crisis. Many have died while we have waited to be noticed by those addressing the issue.

We hope that speaking up will cause the public to look again at what are many examples of failed policies and perceptions that are fueling an epidemic of avoidable shootings in our state.

R. Drake Ewbank is a member of the Lane Mental Health Consumers Advisory Council, and wrote this column with the council's permission and participation. The council meets at 1:30 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month at the Michael Rogers Room of the Lane County Mental Health Building, 2411 Martin Luther King Blvd. [Eugene, Oregon, USA]. Members of the public, especially those with psychiatric labels, are welcome.

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Matt Morrissey

Matt Morrissey is on the MFI Choice in Mental Health Campaign Committee. Matt directs the adult day program at Full Spectrum Progressive Mental Health, which is a nonprofit center in San Francisco that offers voluntary programs for adults and adolescents in severe emotional distress. Full Spectrum is a Sponsor Group in MFI. Matt is shown here speaking at an MFI co-sponsored protest in front of the American Psychiatric Association. (Photo by Tom Olin)
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