Car horns blared as Peter Villarreal lay in the middle of Highway 395 Tuesday night, refusing to move until Hermiston police eventually hustled him to the side of the road.
Villarreal, 56, shouted at the officers and then slumped into his ragged layers. He was released from Kadlec Hospital in Kennewick just hours before. He told them he didn’t want assistance, just a beer.
In the last five years, the man has had 89 charges and 59 arrests by Hermiston police for violations such as disorderly conduct, offensive littering, criminal trespass and urinating and drinking alcohol in public.
Police chief Jason Edmiston said it is a futile effort.
“Our only recourse is to charge him with a criminal offense and lodge him for a little while,” Edmiston said. “The $64,000 question is, does he realize what he’s doing?”
There are few options to help people like Villarreal in northeastern Oregon. Police are left to deal with the chronic addicts and the mentally ill on a daily basis, without proper resources or training.
“How I see the system now is you put them on a merry-go-round and start spinning it,” Pendleton police chief Stuart Roberts said. “You keep spinning them round and round and it gets so fast that they can never get off.”
Roberts said his officers have seen a 39 percent increase in contact with the mentally ill this year alone, and the costly cycle is often the same. Police pick up someone who appears to be mentally impaired and transport him to the hospital, where he is given a physical and psychological assessment and released, often to be picked up by police just days later.
If criminal charges are filed, the individual will undergo a court process and be sent to jail for a short time.
“The ripple effect is almost endless. It continually burdens all our systems all the time.” Roberts said. “If these individuals were just medicated and monitored, we’d see vast savings.”
If a psychological assessment does reveal a mental illness, Lifeways is typically the next stop on the agenda.
Replacing Umatilla County’s mental health outpatient facility, which closed several years ago, Lifeways serves the mental and emotional needs of Umatilla County, seeing hundreds of people for services ranging from occasional therapy to intensive outpatient treatment.
But Lifeways will not help an individual until diagnosed with a mental illness by someone at the organization, and not while the individual is impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Lifeways also does not classify addiction as a mental illness, so people like Villarreal are not eligible for their services.
“Peter does not have a mental illness,” Lifeways clinical operations manager Michael Gregory, a licensed professional counselor, said. “Addiction is not the problem. Brain damage is the problem, regardless of how you get from healthy brain to damaged brain. Sometimes it’s through addiction, sometimes it’s through car wreck or beating, or sometimes it’s through genetics.”
Gregory’s is not a widely held view among professionals in his field. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders lists substance abuse disorders as an official mental disorder, right alongside schizophrenia and depression.
“Addictions are listed in the DSM IV under substance abuse,” said Julie Nelligan, president of the Oregon Psychological Association. “From everything I’ve heard it is a mental illness.”
Inpatient treatment is available at Blue Mountain Treatment Center in Pendleton, but not for addictions. There are a couple of beds available at Lifeway’s McNary Place residential treatment facility — yet again not for addictions.
Roberts said he has told Gov. John Kitzhaber several times that he believes the biggest void in state services is in mental health, including addictions. With the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Roberts said he is glad Salem has started to talk about the issue.
Edmiston said another barrier arises when an individual refuses treatment, as Villarreal does. A judge can have him involuntarily committed if his crimes are serious enough but Villarreal’s, though numerous, are petty.
The police would also need to transport a person who is involuntarily committed to nearest available treatment facility, usually in Washington or western Oregon.
“It’s not an easy process to have someone involuntarily committed,” Roberts said. “It can be done, but it’s rare.”
The Pendleton chief has gone through the process before, with someone very similar to Villarreal.
Orval Kipp was in and out of the criminal system for years because of drunken behavior. The Pendleton police finally racked up enough charges to bring him to a judge at the circuit court level. He was involuntarily committed and sent to treatment.
“He did really well when he got out,” Roberts said. “Eventually he stopped receiving follow-up treatment. When he no longer had those services, he started getting back to his old ways.”
Tribal police found Kipp dead, with a high blood-alcohol content, near the Umatilla River in May.
“He’s somebody that never received the appropriate services,” Roberts said. “He became more and more agitated with every police contact. We weren’t what he needed.”
Contact Natalie Wheeler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4547.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.