In the early days of the 2013 legislative session in February, I pointed out some very disturbing statistics. One in nine Oregon children suffers from mental illness and, currently, only 35 percent receive treatment. One in 18 adults is mentally ill and only 45 percent are being treated.

Over the next four months, we developed a six-year plan to dramatically increase the access to quality mental health services for Oregonians in every corner of the state.

Too many of our people, especially in rural Oregon, have no place to turn when they need help. The plan could change that. It can ensure that we have mental health providers in every county. It can make care affordable and accessible for every Oregonian.

It can make Oregon a national leader in mental health treatment less than a decade after our mental health system was exposed as a national embarrassment.

It’s been nearly nine years since former House Speaker Karen Minnis and I discovered the cremated remains of more than 3,500 people who had died while they were patients at the hospital.

The discovery of the “Room of Lost Souls” changed the course of Oregon history. Those copper canisters served as a constant reminder that for decades investing in better mental health services and facilities had been put on the back burner of the state budget.

Those afflicted people, who had been institutionalized and forgotten in both life and death, inspired us. They were the catalyst that convinced us to make the necessary investment to build a new facility to replace the 125-year-old state hospital.

In the aftermath of tragedies last December in Clackamas and Connecticut, Americans from all walks of life and every political persuasion were united in their calls for better mental health treatment programs in our country.

Almost no one opposes funding mental health services. History tells me, however, that when it comes to our state’s budget priorities, mental health never seems to reach the top of the list.

We need to create a dedicated funding source that will ensure that mental health treatment will no longer have to wait in line at budget time.

In the final days of the 2013 session, a measure that would have dedicated a small increase in the cigarette tax to funding mental health treatment failed by one vote. It was a setback, but we cannot let it deter us from our goal. The costs — both in dollars spent and lives wasted — are too high to allow that to continue to happen.

The people who need our help are not strangers. They are our friends, our neighbors and our co-workers. They are members of our own family. And they just want to live normal lives. They want to be better friends, better neighbors and better employees. They want to be better fathers and better mothers. They just want to be like us. We need to make the investment to give them that chance.

Sen. Peter Courtney represents Senate District 11, which includes portions of Salem, Gervais and Woodburn. He has served as president of the Oregon Senate since 2003.

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