The need for a mental health facility in Clatsop County is great, and it is growing.

In response to the rising demand, Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare is partnering with the county’s two hospitals, Providence Seaside Hospital and Columbia Memorial Hospital, to create a short-term facility that can offer a place of safety and respite for local sufferers of mental illness, said Lisa Huddleston, medical director at the Providence Seaside Emergency Department.

“We’re trying to come up with something that will help the majority of folks,” which tend to be people addicted to drugs and alcohol, she said.

Plans are all tentative. The facility will not offer inpatient care, nor have a psychiatrist to prescribe medication on site. It is unknown where it will be, how much it will cost, when it will be finished or who will staff it, she added.

But, in a county that has very little to offer people with mental illness, at least it could be something. And it could not come at a better time.

“We just don’t have the resources that we need (to help them),” Cannon Beach Police Chief Jason Schermerhorn said. “We don’t have anywhere that we can take the people that have mental health issues, whatever they may be, to keep them safe.”

Because neither Providence nor Columbia provide inpatient care, people experiencing a mental health crisis — schizophrenia, untreated bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. — must be transported outside the county for hospitalization, said Suzanne Evans, crisis mental health manager at Helping Hands Outreach in Seaside. Usually, patients are taken to Portland, which offers Providence Medical Center, Providence St. Vincent Medical Center and Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.

Quite often, though, there are no spare beds available, so crisis workers have to call hospitals in Coos Bay, Salem, Eugene, Roseburg, Bend, Medford or elsewhere to find one, she said.

“If they have to be hospitalized, they may be stuck for hours waiting for a bed to open up,” said Alice Wood, vice president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Between last June and September, Evans had direct contact with about 30 individuals who have a mental health diagnosis of some kind, she said. These people, many with serious substance abuse problems, resided at Helping Hands in Seaside, either in the emergency shelter for one night or as part of the agency’s re-entry program.

Schermerhorn estimates that the Cannon Beach Police Department deals with about 10 mental illness cases a month during summer and slightly less than that during the off-season.

Last July, a citizen reported seeing a man named Aaron, a 30-year-old Hillsboro resident, shouting Bible verses in the downtown area.

When an officer arrived, Aaron “wasn’t making a whole lot of sense,” Schermerhorn said. “But, at the time, he wasn’t a danger to himself or anybody else.”

This meant that the officer couldn’t put Aaron on a “mental health hold” and transport him to a hospital.

That evening, Aaron was seen down on the beach in front of Mo’s Restaurant in Tolovana, screaming.

When an officer approached him, Aaron charged at the officer as he was getting out of his car. Aaron started shouting, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! You’re going to have to shoot me! I can’t stop! I don’t want to hurt you!” according to Schermerhorn.

A second officer showed up. After a scuffle on the ground, both officers tased Aaron. The screaming continued. “It isn’t working! It isn’t working! Help me!”

Aaron managed to get away and disappear into the fog. When the officers found him near Silver Point, he was “curled up in a fetal position, naked, at the tideline.”

They took him to Providence on a mental health hold, where the medical staff found no drugs in his system. Aaron’s sister later said that he had been off his medications.

Providence, however, didn’t have a spot for him, so Aaron was released. Shortly thereafter, he was seen shouting obscenities at 5:30 a.m. along U.S. Highway 101 near Arch Cape. He was taken into custody yet again by the Oregon State Police. A trooper eventually transported Aaron to a mental healthcare facility in Eugene.

The lack of an inpatient facility has put law enforcement agencies in a bind.

The Clatsop County Jail has only so many cells available, and, ideally, they should be used to house criminals.

“Jail deputies can’t handle that capacity,” Schermerhorn said.

The Cannon Beach Police Department has a holding cell that can be used for four hours; after that, the subject must be transported to the county jail.

But this holding cell is rarely used to house mentally ill people. When it is, they have fallen into a gray zone where they may have committed a crime because they are psychologically unstable but still do not qualify for a mental health hold.

When mental health holds do happen, however, the officer transports the subject to a hospital so medical professionals can take over.

Sometimes, though, the officer must stick around and watch over the patient in case he or she becomes violent. It is not unusual for officers to yoke a patient to a hospital bed with soft restraints.

“That’s what’s taxing for the local agencies,” especially in small towns where “most of the time we have one officer on (duty),” Schermerhorn said. When that officer is stuck at a hospital, “we don’t have anybody to respond to emergencies that are going on in Cannon Beach, so we have to bring in another officer on overtime.”

Law enforcement shouldn’t even be dealing with this problem, he added, because most of the subjects aren’t criminals.

“They aren’t doing anything with the intent of committing a crime, nor would they have the mental status (for us) to hold them responsible in court,” he said, adding that locking them up just delays their access to mental health services. “They just need some sort of treatment.”

Even without a facility, the county still has some services on hand.

Professionals like Evans and city police officers who interact with the mentally ill population frequently reach out to specialists at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare who can evaluate whether it’s appropriate, or safe, for a patient to be lodged in a jail-type setting.

A mental health court every Monday morning at Clatsop County Circuit Court, presided over by Judge Cindee Matyas, tracks the progress of mental health patients caught up in the judicial system, making sure they’re taking their medication and going to counseling.

But these agencies have their work cut out for them.

“We’re seeing such a spike in different mental health (crises) that it’s just getting worse and worse every day,” Schermerhorn said.

Schermerhorn said that if there is, in fact, a rise in mental illness in Clatsop County, it could be the result of rampant methamphetamine use and the consequent condition, even among recovering addicts, known as “meth psychosis.”

But whether an illness is drug-induced or naturally occurring, once a person is in its throes, “it’s not anything they can control, that’s for sure,” Wood said.

“It’s an illness. It’s not something that they want,” Schermerhorn said. “It can happen to anybody.”


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