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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.

Mental Health Debate Personal For One Oregon Lawmaker

Oregon Legislature

After last December’s mass shootings in Oregon and Connecticut, Democrats and Republicans in the Oregon legislature called for increased funding for mental health care. Now, there’s a proposal under discussion that would expand such programs in a big way, but it remains caught up in a debate over how to fund it. And for one lawmaker, mental health care is a very personal issue.

You wouldn't guess it by seeing her. But Oregon State Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward has multiple sclerosis. She controls it pretty well with medication. A lot of people know about it around the capitol. But there's something about the Senator that none of her colleagues knew. At least, until a committee hearing on mental health in early April.

The Democratic lawmaker told her colleagues, onlookers and everyone watching the capitol video feed that she suffers from major depression. And has for the last 15 years.

"And I bet there's a gazillion people who are looking at this right now and saying 'really, really?'" Steiner Hayward said. "But I can tell you that if I go two days without taking my medication, I can't walk in the door of this building. I can't get up in the morning. I can't take a shower. I can't function as a normal human being."

"So, stigma be damned, excuse my language. It's no different that I have a biochemical disorder in my brain than my body's choosing to attack my myelin and giving me multiple sclerosis. It's genetic and it's just like any other disease. And we gotta stop being afraid to say so publicly. And I'm doing that right here, right now. And I don't give a damn what anybody thinks."

Fast forward a month.

I caught up with Senator Steiner Hayward on the Senate floor. In our interview I asked her about that moment when she publicly disclosed her mental illness for the first time.

"It was a little scary," she admits.

And here's something else you should know about the Senator. She's also a doctor at Oregon Health & Science University. So she knows a thing or two about what's ailing her.

"I'm a physician and I understand this stuff," Steiner Hayward says. "So I know who to talk to. So I've gotten great mental health care my whole life."

But she says many, many others dealing with mental illness haven't been as fortunate. Steiner Hayward is backing a measure that would dramatically expand the state's mental health services, especially to youth and people in underserved rural areas.

The idea came from Senate President Peter Courtney after a series of mass shootings shook the nation last year. The Democrat wanted what he called a “game-changing investment.” So he approached the Oregon Health Authority's Linda Hammond.

"He called me into his office," Hammond says. "I remember it was a Friday morning. And wanted to talk to me about what it would really take and what it would look like if we truly made a commitment to investing in what was needed."

Hammond came up with a series of ideas to boost mental health services. Many are existing programs scattered around Oregon that would go statewide under the plan. The goal is to provide comprehensive support services to families and individuals experiencing mental illness. Lawmakers say the plan needs just two things to make it work.

"Money. That's probably the first one," Republican state Senator Brian Boquist. He says the other thing such a major expansion of mental health care needs is time.

"You need a trained psychologist, or you need a trained case worker, you don't go one off the shelf. So it takes time to develop a workforce and actually implement the program at the same time you're identifying those issues."

Lawmakers would give the Oregon Health Authority six years to expand and roll out the programs included in the bill. As for the money, that's still under discussion. Boquist says he supports the expansion, but he says funding for it is wrapped up in the debate over higher taxes and public pension cost-cutting.

As for Senator Steiner Hayward, she says she's received nothing but positive feedback from her fellow lawmakers since opening up about her depression. And she thinks her constituents will be just as understanding.

"I don't want to lose my career in the legislature," she says. "I love doing this. I think I'm pretty good at it. But if this is the thing that takes me down, then I've got a new job to do. And that's to go out there and do more of this, being public about it."

And she predicts if the mental health proposal does pass, it will be recalled in years to come as one of the most significant pieces of legislation to emerge from Salem in 2013.

On the Web:

SB 823: Mental health services - Oregon Legislature