Locals live with stigma of ‘invisible' disabilities.

By KYLE ODEGARD
Gazette-Times reporter, February 18, 2004

Mental health agency reps stress need for more funding

It'd be easy to notice Pam McCollum's disability if she were blind, carrying a cane and wearing sunglasses, or maybe sitting in a wheelchair.

Even though McCollum could blend into a crowd, she lives with what she calls "the invisible disability" — mental illness.

She has suffered major depression and had manic episodes.

"I have bad times. Last year, I was barely hanging on," McCollum said. "If I didn't have work to go to, I probably would've had some really significant episodes."

In a way, she's fortunate. Other people with a mental illness can't find jobs.

McCollum and six other residents with mental illnesses spoke during a forum at the Corvallis Benton County Public Library Tuesday night.

Much of their discussion was on the problems they faced.

They talked about discrimination against those labeled "mental," the resulting futility of job searches, problems paying for medicine and getting health insurance and the need for safe, affordable housing.

One woman said that people with mental illnesses do better when they have food, sleep and shelter — and know they aren't going to lose those.

Some praised mental health services in Benton County but said the situation could still get much better.

Several agency representatives spoke at the meeting, as well.

Mike May, vice president/medical director of Samaritan Health Services, said mental health services in Benton County and the surrounding area was significantly better than the rest of the state.

But he sharply criticized mental health care in America for being inefficient, and pointed to a recent scathing report by the President's commission on mental health services.

"The system is so screwed up it's unreal. The fact we can provide as good of service with the system is remarkable," May said. "Ultimately, there's going to need to be more funding. But society isn't willing to pay it."

Lt. Tim Brewer of Corvallis Police Department said budget cuts have created a gap in services, so police have to respond to help the mentally ill.

"Frequently, the resolution that occurs is a person is taken into custody," he added, which happens a couple times a week.

In those situations, officers deem the person is in immediate need of mental health treatment, as they are posing a danger to themselves or others, Brewer said.

About 60 people were in the audience at the Corvallis Library for the "Living with Mental Illness in Corvallis" forum, which was hosted by the Community Alliance for Diversity.

Kyle Odegard covers Philomath and rural Benton County. He can be contacted at kyle.odegard@ lee.net or 758-9523.