Public officials’ views are often informed by their personal experiences. For doctor-turned-Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, the emergency room shaped those experiences, particularly when it comes to mental health.
In the ER, she encountered the gaping holes in the region’s mental health care system. As a county commissioner, she sponsored an analysis of how mental health care services are provided in Multnomah County.
Serving on the county commission is a full-time job, but Meieran still works a couple of shifts in the ER every month. For her, the draw to mental health is based on what she sees there, but it’s also personal. And it goes way back.
This conversation is part of an occasional series about the pivotal moments that shape the lives of people in the public eye. If there’s someone whose story you want to hear, write to us at email@example.com and put “Backstory” in the subject line.
Part 1: Then The Ladder Slipped: Oregon State Rep. Diego Hernandez
Part 2: Sen. Ron Wyden: ‘He Was Constantly Afraid.’
Part 3: Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly And ‘The Bad Tenant Story’
Part 4: Oregon’s Secretary Of State On Faith, Race And Same-Sex Marriage
Part 4: How The ER Shaped A Multnomah County Commissioner’s Mental Health Policies
Meieran had two children during the grueling process of training in emergency medicine. She worked long shifts while pregnant, treating gunshot wounds and other traumatic injuries. During her second pregnancy, she flew on helicopters to reach people seriously injured in crashes.
“I was too big to wear my flight uniform — the one-piece made out of whatever the fire retardant material is. So I’d have to borrow my larger male counterparts’ suits. So I looked kind of like an Oompa Loompa trying to strap myself in,” Meieran recalled.
After childbirth, Meieran experienced postpartum depression. Though she hasn’t talked about it publicly before, she’s wrestled with depression since she was young.
“I’ve had episodes of major depression. I’ve had postpartum depression, and it’s really hard,” she said. “Not having it diagnosed and not having a name for it. And suffering very deeply from it.”
Those experiences made something Meieran witnessed time and again in the ER particularly difficult: the so-called “psychiatric boarding” of children and adolescents. That’s when young people having mental health crises end up in the emergency room because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
“Once they’re in the ER, they stay there for days and weeks in that windowless room, without any real great treatment, without real exercise, without all of this stuff for weeks. It can be weeks,” she said. “And these are kids.”
We spoke with Meieran about one of the tools that was supposed to address this problem: the Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland. When it opened in 2017, Unity was heralded as a groundbreaking emergency ward for people experiencing mental health crises. However, conditions that endangered patients and staff soon came to light.
Meieran serves on Unity’s advisory board. Before becoming a commissioner, she traveled to California to see the center Unity is based on. She remains an advocate for the model, as well as for more rigorous county oversight of the center.
You can hear Meieran’s backstory, as well as her thoughts on Unity by clicking the audio player above.