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Oregon governor candidates respond to state’s mental health gaps

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KGW’s investigative series “Uncommitted” explored gaps in the mental healthcare system and high standards for forced care. State leaders say they’re open to change.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon gubernatorial candidates and state senators say they want to reevaluate state standards for civil commitment and forced mental healthcare.

KGW’s ‘Uncommitted’ investigative series explored gaps in the mental healthcare system, explaining how high standards for involuntary care can fuel a cycle that fails people with severe mental illness.

Most people interviewed, from parents to doctors to behavioral health workers to police officers to judges, said Oregon’s standards for civil commitment are unbalanced—weighed too heavily in favor of individual rights over recommended care.

People with severe mental illness who refuse treatment are frequently released from care unless they meet imminent danger standards.

RELATED: Uncommitted: How high standards are fueling a cycle that can fail people with serious mental illness

Any hopes of changing state standards for civil commitment lies with the Oregon state legislature, so KGW asked gubernatorial candidates and state lawmakers where they stand.

Betsy Johnson’s response

Unaffiliated candidate for governor Betsy Johnson said state standards for forced mental healthcare are too high:

“We have to stop using the streets and our neighborhoods as the waiting room for mental health treatment,” Johnson said. “I believe the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of leaving people to their own devices rather than getting them the help they need.”

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Johnson said as governor she will “help get mentally ill people of our streets and to the help they need.”

“Oregon is last in the country for mental health services and our state hospital is falling apart. I will fix it. For me, this is a priority, not something to push under the rug,” she said. “This is where ideology is getting in the way of practical solutions. People with severe mental illness are by definition not capable of making good decisions on their own which is why we need to act to get them into safer situations.”

Tina Kotek’s response

Democratic candidate for governor Tina Kotek said she’s willing to look at the standards, but stopped short of saying they are unbalanced.

“Thank you for the thoughtful reporting. Ultimately, we need to make sure we’re connecting people with services so they have an opportunity to stabilize and get better,” Kotek said in a statement. “I would be open to working with legislators and stakeholders to reevaluate the standards for civil commitment.”

Kotek said she wants to review the Oregon Health Authority and fix a shortage of mental health workers.

“As Governor, I will work to make sure Oregon has an effective, comprehensive plan that will connect more people with peer support, housing, and other services,” Kotek said. “This means effectively spending the $500 million the legislature added to expand mental health and addiction care, including more supportive housing, and the millions more that voters approved through Measure 110. As Governor, I will demand results.”

Christine Drazan

Republican candidate Christine Drazan did not provide a statement or response following four requests from KGW for comment.

State lawmakers’ response

While the next Oregon governor will hold some power over mental health initiatives, state lawmakers would need to advance any legislation that seeks to change the standards for civil commitment.

That type of legislation is not new, but it’s been ignored in committees during each of the last two major sessions.

In 2019, SB763 attempted to redefine “dangerous to self or others” in the context of involuntary mental healthcare for a person judged to be in crisis.

In 2021, a similar change was considered through SB187.

Both bills died in the Ways and Means committee without discussion or a vote.

RELATED: Oregon governor’s race could be a toss-up, experts say

State senator Jeff Golden, a democrat representing Ashland on the committee, said it’s likely these bills weren’t even considered.

“My view is that the biggest single defect we have in Salem is the mountain of policy bills that die in the Ways and Means committee after careful vetting in policy committees, usually (not always) because there’s not enough time…to deal with them,” Golden said.

State senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a democrat representing Northwest Portland and Beaverton, said civil commitment standards need to be reviewed.

“I agree that we need to reevaluate these standards. It requires a careful balancing of civil rights and the need to protect people who are at risk of harming themselves or others,” Steiner Hayward, who’s also a doctor and longtime medical professional, said. “I look forward to continuing to work with those focused on this effort to find a path that walks this very fine line as fairly as possible.”

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