Medford Police see skyrocketing mental health calls

, Written by Christine Pitawanich, Posted: Mon, May 19 2014 at 7:05 PM, Updated: Thu, May 22 2014 at 12:49 AM

Medford, Ore. -- Patrolling the streets of Medford for more than 15 years now, Officer Bob Mccurley knows the dangers he could face on the job.

"Regardless of all the information you get, there's still the complete unknown of how the person is going to react when you show up," said Mccurley.

He's had to deal with more unknowns every day as the number of mental health calls to Medford Police skyrocket.

"The numbers are astonishing how much of an increase it is," said Medford Police Lieutenant Curtis Whipple.

Skyrocketing mental health calls

According to data out of the Medford Police Department, between 2012 and 2013 there was a 26% increase in mental health holds, where people are brought to the Psychiatric Care Unit at Rogue Regional Medical Center.

Police also saw a 23% increase in the number of referrals to Jackson County Health and a 38% increase in suicide calls.

So far for 2014, the trend is continuing with a 31% increase in mental health holds, an uptick of 24% for referrals and 14% in suicides. Those are the calls police actually report.

"There are a lot more individuals with mental health issues that we'll contact during the day when we're out on patrol," said Whipple.

The reason for the increase is largely unknown.

"I don't know if anybody has the answer as to why that number has increased so much," Whipple said.

Jackson County may be worse off than the rest of the state.

"According to the Oregon Health Authority, our depression rates are 16% higher than the state of Oregon's average and our suicide rate is 20% higher," said Matthew Vorderstrasse, the Executive Director of Compass House, an organization aimed at helping people with mental health issues by using peer support.

Jackson County Mental Health officials said when it comes to the 10-24 year old age group, suicides are a big problem.

"We're one of the highest counties in Oregon that have the number of people that died by suicide," said Anna D'amato with Jackson County Mental Health.

A revolving door at Rogue Regional Medical Center

At Rogue Regional Medical Center, psychiatrist Dr. Anne O'Connell said it's a revolving door, with many of the same, troubled people coming in and out.

"My feeling is that a lot more needs to be done at preventing these kinds of crises," said O'Connell.

The Psychiatric Care Unit at Rogue Regional is the only hospital in Southern Oregon and Northern California accepting mental health patients in crisis. Like police they too have seen more people come through their doors.

Too many people, too few beds

"We're a relatively small unit. We have 18 beds and it's almost always full," said O'Connell.

According to Oregon's Addictions and Mental Health Services Division there are roughly 386 beds statewide for people who are in a mental health crisis.

"We kind of patch people up ... then we got to keep them moving because the demand for beds is so high," O'Connell said.

According to O'Connell, there are a lack of beds and a lack of people to treat patients.

"We are federally designated by the Department of Health and Human Services as a shortage area," she said.

O'Connell said Southern Oregon in particular has a mental health professional shortage and she said it has a lot to do with psychiatrists and nurses choosing to stay in larger cities like Portland and San Francisco.

In addition, O'Connell and many others say, for years the funding to provide adequate service just hasn't been there. It leaves many who need help stuck with nowhere to go and few people to turn to.

It's important to note that people who live with mental illness aren't always violent. In reality most people struggle silently.

However, it's not just adults who are having trouble finding help for their mental illness.

O'Connell, said available mental health care for young adults and children is grave. 

We'll have an in-depth report on what many people say is a lack of mental health services for youth on Tuesday night.

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About the Author

Christine Pitawanich

Christine Pitawanich was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. In 2010, she received a master's degree in Broadcast Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York.

Christine also has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from the University of Washington.

Before joining the NBC5 News team, she had the opportunity to file reports from Washington D.C. for WFFT FOX Ft. Wayne News in Indiana. Christine has also interned at KOMO-TV in Seattle.

Christine loves to ski, try new food and have fun in the outdoors.

Catch Christine anchoring weekdays on NBC 5 News at 5pm.

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