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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Shootings Push Mental Health Into Spotlight In Salem

Jessica Paterson

SALEM, Ore. – Recent mass shootings in Oregon and Connecticut have thrust mental health issues into the spotlight. Some Oregon lawmakers and mental health advocates hope there's enough momentum to keep the conversation front and center. Unlike gun control, there is a consensus that appears to be emerging on funding mental health programs. 

First, there was the Clackamas Town Center mall shooting. Then, just days later, the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Some Oregon lawmakers responded with proposals to ban high capacity ammunition magazines and implement other gun control laws. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber says he's open to a wide range of gun-related legislation.

"But even if you do all that, you really do need to invest in community mental health," Kitzhaber says.

Programs that serve people on the local level, as opposed to centralized institutions. The Democratic governor has put more money into community mental health programs in his proposed budget. And he's not the only one in Salem talking up the need for more mental health funding. Republicans may be wary of gun control legislation, but they have been talking up the same mental health programs Kitzhaber wants to fund. Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney is a long-time advocate of services for the mentally ill.

"It just doesn't get to the forefront. It never gets to be in front of the parade. In fact sometimes it's not even made part of the parade. It's just not there," Courtney says.

But Courtney says it's clear that there's a new level of interest in the issue.

"If because of this tragedy I can get to mental health, then why shouldn't I do it? We gotta do this. We gotta do a lot better than we're doing it. A lot more than we're doing now," Courtney says.

That's welcome news to many who work on mental health issues. John Van Dreal helps assess the threat posed by troubled students in the Salem-Keizer School District.

"It's good that we're paying attention to this problem—a lack of mental health services and access to folks that really need it," Van Dreal says.

But Van Dreal isn't comfortable using the school and mall shootings as a way to kick-start the conversation about mental health.

"I think we're quick to try to find a reason and blame that reason, and for some reason the folks with mental health issues end up getting the brunt of that blame when these things happen," Van Dreal says.

Van Dreal says linking mass shootings to mental illness just perpetuates a stereotype. Take, for example, these comments from Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association. LaPierre was speaking at a press event held by the gun rights group in the days following the deaths of 26 children and teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary.

"People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them. They walk among us every single day," LaPierre said.

LaPierre called for a new national database of people with mental illness. That's not on anyone's agenda in Salem. And actually, some mental health advocates in Oregon say the state is already turning around decades of neglect on mental health services. Bob Joondeph of Disability Rights Oregon says he doesn't think the new momentum over mental health funding will quickly dissipate.

"I think in Oregon it's going to just add steam to a train that's already moving down the track," says Joondeph.

But Senate President Peter Courtney isn't so confident. He sees this as perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle an issue he holds dear.

"It's not going to happen unless we barge ahead. It's time to barge," Courtney says.

But Courtney says to truly transform Oregon’s mental health system would take hundreds of millions of dollars. And he's not sure where the money would come from.