In Forest Grove, the number of calls related to people with mental illnesses has risen in recent years

It’s surprisingly difficult to convince someone there are no dragons under their house.

Joe Martino was one of numerous Forest Grove police officers who responded to dozens of calls over several months from a young woman who saw dragons everywhere — under her house, in her basement, on the lamppost.

“To me the dragons aren’t real, but I know they’re real to you, so how can I help?” Martino would say, trying to respect the woman’s delusions without feeding into them.

Her boyfriend tried to help her take her medicine, but the calls stopped only after the woman left town, said Martino, who spoke about mental illness at the city's Public Safety Advisory Commission last Wednesday. The talk was similar to the one Martino gives during the department's nine-week Citizens Academy, which will begin its next round on Feb. 13. (Academy applications are available at the police department or city hall.)

Mental illness and law enforcement have collided in horrible ways over the past few years in Oregon, leading to fatal shootings of depressed and suicidal people in Portland and Tigard, and of a much-loved police chief in Rainier. In Forest Grove, mental illness has led to a "suicide by cop" and a gruesome murder over the past 10 years.

Between July 2009 and January 2012, Forest Grove received nearly 300 calls specifically related to mental illness, Martino said. In addition to 75 with the blatantly “mental” designation, there were 136 “threatened suicide” calls and 73 “attempted suicide.”

But that doesn’t come close to the whole picture. Many of the 1,178 “welfare check” 1,055 “suspicious circumstance” and 1,041 “suspicious person” calls during that same time span were related to mental illness, Martino said.

In fact, he said, calls on “theft,” “burglary,” “domestic disturbance” or pretty much “any call you could imagine” can end up being related to mental illness.

On a recent ride-along with a sergeant, Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz went to three mental health calls in a row, the last one involving a man who was waving loaded guns in the parking lot of his apartment building. He had put the guns back in his apartment by the time Schutz arrived, but the call still turned into a five-hour standoff, with backup from Cornelius and Washington County.

Only two of the three Forest Grove patrol officers on duty that night were available for that call because the other was still busy with the first mental health call, which took about four hours.

That’s a standard amount of time for handling suicidal people who need a mental health hold, Martino said. It can take up to two hours to bring the person to a hospital, fill out the “mental hold” form and wait with them until they’re admitted, then another 30 to 60 minutes to return to Forest Grove and write up a report. And that’s not counting the initial response and evaluation.

It can be anybody

Martino sees a lot more mentally ill people in Forest Grove than he did when he started working here almost 12 years ago.

But that’s mainly because he dropped the stereotype of poor, homeless, dirty loners who talk to themselves, and realized that wealthy, successful, normal-seeming professionals can also suffer from mental illness.

“It can literally be anybody,” he said.

For Martino, it was his wife, who has panic attacks.

“For the first couple years I thought it was something she could just push through, that she was weak,” he said.

Eventually Martino realized he was wrong about that and he shows more empathy now when he recognizes mental illness in the people he deals with.

The types of illness vary widely, he said, from depression (the most common) to schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress disorder and more.

Many people self-medicate their symptoms with drugs or alcohol, leading to a stereotype that all mental illness is drug-related, said Martino, who will give an in-depth presentation on mental health to his fellow officers in 2013, including techniques and tactics for dealing with mentally ill people.

Forest Grove Police Department leaders try to make sure all their officers get some sort of mental health training each year, said Mike Herb, the department's public information officer. In 2011 it helped organize a multi-agency summit in Portland on the issue, he said. And in August, it hosted three days of crisis-intervention mental health training for agencies across Washington County.

“We are certainly up to speed in this stuff,” said Herb, adding that budget constraints in a struggling economy keep many mentally ill people from getting the help they need. "These are really tough times ... trying to find a solution to a problem that, as yet, doesn’t have a solution."

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