Chris Bouneff
Chris Bouneff
In mid-November 2021, Reynolds Middle School in suburban Portland surprised families with the news that they were going back to distance learning until Dec. 7. It wasn’t because of COVID-19.

The campus closure was because of behavior issues and disruptions. Teachers and students didn’t feel safe.

Chris Bouneff, NAMI Oregon’s executive director, wasn’t surprised. (NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a national organization.)

“It’s like a rolling natural disaster, with impact on all age groups and demographic groups,” he said, comparing the state’s mental health crisis to the wildfires that devastated Southern Oregon. “You see a whole bunch of people coming forward with needs that they wouldn’t have had in the past, and they’re coming into a health care system that couldn’t handle people’s needs before.”

Bouneff has a second comparison for the stresses facing individuals and families now: a mass shooting. “It affects the entire population,” he said.

Headlines for the past year have sounded the warning: “Exodus of mental health workers needs state response” (Oregonian); “Crisis mode: Oregon's lack of mental health resources remains large concern” (Pamplin Media); “Behavioral health slammed by worker shortage in Oregon” (The Lund Report).

Oregon has had a high prevalence of mental illness for years and that has persisted. The state was fifth in the nation, after Virginia, Texas, Alaska and Tennessee in one recent per capita ranking.

The state’s health care system was not able to meet those needs pre-pandemic. It’s unrealistic, Bouneff said, to expect it to be able to ramp up now to the point where today’s much greater needs will be met, despite the fact that 2021 was a successful legislative session in terms of allocating funding for care.

It will take time to improve, even with added funding, he said.

Catholic therapist Patricia Mackie hopes that regulatory efforts underway to open up counseling across state borders may help, adding to the availability of telehealth.

What is happening in Oregon, however, is happening nationally.

The cumulative stress from the pandemic, the wildfires (or, elsewhere, from floods, sea level rise and droughts), politics, and our addiction to screens — from television to cell phones — has damaged our resiliency, including our children’s resiliency. We need to take conscious steps to reconnect and care for one another Bouneff said.

“You can’t undo the cell phones or screens,” he explained. “And whatever forces we have unleashed on our society, kids are being unequally impacted.”

Bouneff said schools are trying to put more emphasis on mental wellness, helping form healthy and cooperative citizens. The need goes beyond schools, however.

Families, churches, businesses and other institutions also need to focus on social and emotional health.

Bouneff urges leaders in every organization to act. “There are things we can do,” he said. “Either we’re going to change or we’re going to pay a huge price for our inaction.”

How, for instance, can communities of faith encourage human connections?

Catholic parishes and schools are listening. St. Rose School in Northeast Portland is working with LifeStance (formerly Western Psychological & Counseling Services) to offer a school-based program that provides professional therapeutic services.

Resurrection Parish in Tualatin is dedicating the month of May to Mental Health Awareness and Mary, including a walk in solidarity with NAMI May 22.

Danny Rauda, social justice coordinator at St. Anthony Parish in Tigard, is hosting a one-day bilingual mental health conference July 16. Rauda is reaching out to other parishes that might want to participate.

Last November, when Reynolds Middle School students were again learning from their homes, Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland was hosting a Mental Health Awareness Day, which included “Angst,” a documentary on anxiety.

Bouneff urges families who see a loved one in trouble to reach out for help rather than delay, thinking that things will get better. Despite the shortage of mental health time slots for those in need, the only way to get care is to begin reaching out for it. He thinks NAMI is a good place to begin.

“We can help,” he said.