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The need for better mental health services has been identified in East Multnomah County. A gathering on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at Wood Village City Hall is planned to gather public insights and ideas on how to address the service desert.

Olivia Huerta, left, and Wendy LawtonAccording to Mental Health America, Oregon ranks 49 out of 50 for providing access to mental health services. The consequences are clear. Our hospitals are filled with patients that can't be safely discharged. Schools are filled with kids who are anxious and depressed. Gun violence is on the rise, along with homicides and other violence crimes. Oregon, and the nation, are seeing record rates of addiction, overdose, and suicide. Oregon ranks #10 for suicide — and, shamefully, No. 6 for suicide among the elderly.

In a state with notoriously few services, East County is a mental health service desert. Gresham is home to a few large nonprofit providers, such as Morrison Child & Family Services. But East County has no all-ages behavioral health clinic, such as the Unity Center on Portland's East Side. We have no emergency response team, such as Portland Street Response, which assists people citywide who are experiencing a mental health crisis. And when Multnomah County opens its new Behavioral Health Resource Center this fall, it will open in downtown Portland.

The mental health and substance abuse service directory powered by CareOregon lists 353 providers in Oregon, from large nonprofit health centers to individual counseling practices. Of these, just 14 are registered in Gresham and Troutdale. None are listed in Fairview, Wood Village, Corbett, or Sandy.

We are part of a small but growing grassroots group trying to change this landscape. Organized by Fairview resident Olivia Huerta, more than a dozen community advocates and elected officials gathered Sept. 30 at the Fairview Food Plaza to talk about the need for more local mental health services, and how we can fill the void. Please join us for another planning session from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, at Wood Village City Hall, 24200 N.E. Halsey St.

Everyone is welcome. Please bring insights and ideas.

Based on our first meeting, we've identified one project the community could rally to complete quickly: creating a list of public and private services available in East County, including the county crisis line, that can be shared on local government websites or mailed to area residents.

We're also interested in exploring what it would take to create our own local version of Portland Street Response, a unit run by Portland Fire & Rescue to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis, or who are intoxicated or drug affected. People served are either outside or inside of a publicly accessible space such as a business, a store, or a public lobby. The unit has received nearly 5,000 calls in 2022.

As a mental health professional, and an elected official, we care deeply about this issue. Personally, we have family and friends with mental health disorders, and professionally we advocate for medical care. We're encouraged to see the stigma lifting for people who live with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. But for our neighbors here in East County, services are seriously lacking. Join us in bringing essential healthcare to our community.

Olivia Huerta is a Fairview resident who works as a behavioral health care coordinator at Central City Concern. Wendy Lawton is a member of the Fairview City Council and a long-time healthcare strategist.

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