Sunday, September 28, 2008

How did I get here?

Have you even stopped what you were doing for a minute and considered from a larger point of view why you are where you are at a moment in time?

What circumstances and events have brought you to that particular moment in time to do what it is you are doing? Sometimes particular choices are made that lead you to events and places, sometimes it seems quite random. My first experience with such a thought was in 1976 in Twining, Michigan when I found myself in front of a class of 10th grade English students. For some reason I was struck by the odd set of circumstances that had brought me to that room and I wondered to myself what I would have thought had someone tried to tell me eight years prior to that day if you had told me while I sat in Jim Englehard's 10th grade English class that I would be the teacher of a class of exactly that subject.

To tell you the truth, I would have laughed aloud at the thought of such a suggestion. Given my distaste for 10th grade English as a subject, I could not have envisioned myself as a teacher of that class under any circumstances. Yet, there I was calling roll and passing out textbooks to the students preparing to instruct them about literature and grammar, hoping to inspire them to improve their skills and master the subject matter.

The same feeling came over me last week as I prepared testimony to the Board of Commissioners of Clackamas County. This time the feeling was the same feeling about why was I about to do something and how it was that I got to that position. It differed to the extent that I had not been to this particular place before, but the feeling about what was I doing there and what circumstances had gotten me to that place was the same.

My mission was to present testimony that would advocate for the placement of a community based treatment center for people institutionalized under the care of the State of Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board. Writing that testimony made me think about why I was about to express support for people who had committed serious crimes and were considered by the State to be guilty except for reason of insanity.

Many people would immediately think that people who have attempted to harm or have harmed others should never be put into a situation where they could possibly harm others in the future. As a society we have embraced the idea that mentally ill persons are dangerous and should be segregated from those without disease to protect those who might be harmed.

The problem with that logic is that the frequency with which people who have committed crimes of mental distress are far less likely to be repeat offenders of the crime. In fact, the statistics in Oregon over the last 10 years suggest that people released from jail are nearly 15 times more likely to re-offend than those under the psychiatric security review board jurisdiction. Indeed, it appears as though the likelihood of being harmed by a person who would violate your safety is many times greater from the normal population.

How I became involved and informed about this topic is from my experiences with my daughter who suffers from schizophrenia. Her illness is one of those events that changes forever the path of your life and sets in motion the events that lead you to the hearing in Clackamas County.

While I was creating a video presentation to show at the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) NW Walks fundraiser kickoff luncheon, I was filming interviews with NAMI members. One of those I filmed was Ashleigh B. Her story was so compelling and so amazing to me that it also qualifies as a life changing event. Here was a person who explained calmly and in great detail her experiences with a tragic psychosis that could have resulted in the death of several people, including herself. To look at her and listen to her story today seems very surreal to transpose her into the situation that she created when she thought a gas station attendant was trying to abduct her and she sped away from the gas station with the attendant hanging from the side of her car.

What is most amazing is the remarkable recovery that she has worked toward in her life. She is very repentant about her actions and has shown over time that her condition is carefully controlled. No one wants to minimize the dangerous situation that she created, but as a society we must look beyond the initial event to the end result. Would we be better served if we were simply to lock her away at thousands of dollars a month to insure the safety of the community or can we look at what can be treated and controlled to make the best of an awful situation?

Ashleigh never intended to harm another person. In her temporarily distorted sense of reality, she simply fled from a place that she felt threatened her personal security. Those were the events that brought her to that moment in time. Hearing her story brought me to a deeper understanding of mental illness and why a person could act in a criminal fashion. Thinking that others like her need the opportunity to work through the recovery system and earn the right to rejoin the community is a goal that I can support.

There are other considerations to be sure, but the overall goal can be achieved while protecting the safety of the community while at the same time working to create a better solution than permanently locking people away that can recover and be a help to society instead of a burden.