Fighting for people with mental illness

Eastern Oregon Hospital interior hallway

Landmark Federal Mental Health Law

More than 30 years ago, Congress took an extraordinary step to protect the civil rights of people with mental illness. It passed a law that created watchdog programs in every U.S. state and territory to address horrid conditions in local mental hospitals, jails, and prisons.

President Reagan signed the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI) Act into law in 1985. Across the country, Protection & Advocacy organizations like DRO expanded to shine a light on conditions inside of these institutions that were previously shielded from public view.

In 1986, DRO hired me to create its PAIMI Program.

Eastern Oregon Hospital room showing patients doing crafts.

Overcrowded, Understaffed State Psychiatric Hospitals 

The first thing we did was to regularly visit Oregon’s three state hospitals: Oregon State Hospital, Dammasch State Hospital, and Eastern Oregon State Hospital.  All three were chronically overcrowded and understaffed.

In my first meeting with the superintendent of Dammasch, he complained that his facility did not have “rubber walls” that could simply expand to take everyone sent there. In all three hospitals, the lights were kept off during the day to keep patients calm. The first goal of treatment was for the patient to admit that they had an illness that made them incapable of living a normal life. Seclusion, restraint, and forced medication were commonplace, patient grievance processes were ignored, and TV and smoking were the dominant patient activities. Discharge for patients who had become “institutionalized” was rarely available.

Fighting for Humane Conditions & Swifter Discharge 

In the years since then, DRO filed (and the state settled) four lawsuits describing unconstitutional conditions in the hospitals, issued an investigative report about five preventable deaths at Dammasch, and worked with the U.S. Department of Justice to challenge conditions of care and the long waits for discharge that patients had to endure. DRO made sure that patient rights were honored, that hospital grievance processes and abuse investigations actually occurred, that medical services were available to patients, and that discharge occurred when it was medically appropriate.

None of the three state hospitals remains standing.

OSH first closed its Child and Adolescent Unit. It was ultimately rebuilt as a modern facility. Dammasch was closed and the money used to create group homes for patients who were institutionalized. Eastern Oregon was closed and partially replaced by a new facility in Junction City.

The Fight is Far from Over 

But investment in community-based housing and supports has not kept pace with the needs of Oregonians. As a result, jails and prisons have become the home of many people with behavioral health diagnoses and the entryway to state hospitals.  Skyrocketing housing and healthcare costs have pushed many people to live on the street.

Efforts to bring mental health services to more children have not kept pace with the need, resulting in children waiting in emergency rooms and motels for over-burdened foster care beds.

Our investigatory reports have brought to light shocking conditions in both adult and youth jails. The findings have reverberated across the state and become a catalyst for lasting change.

Headshot of BobHelp Fight the Next Big Challenge: Give Today

We at DRO are not backing away from the challenge of decriminalizing mental illness. Jails must stop serving as a “dumping ground” for people in mental health crisis.

Together, we must transform the system – to promote community-based services rather than incarceration and emphasize successful community supports for those leaving incarceration.

For nearly three decades, DRO has fought to protect the basic human dignity of Oregonians who experience mental illness. Help us continue to fight for their right to build a life for themselves.

Together, we can build on our successes. Give today.  Thank you for your support of our work.

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