I drove to Roseburg on the Friday night following the tragic shootings. The morning was filled with media requests for someone from OPPA to provide perspective on another senseless mass shooting. Thankfully, the television and radio reporters I spoke with all agreed with taking a healing approach to support the community in the wake of the tragedy, rather than a speculative or inflammatory focus. As I drove down I-5 from Portland, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was important to be there, but I didn’t know how I was going to help. I soon found out that simply being there, meeting people, sharing stories, and finding out how to go forward was the most valuable contribution.
I arrived at Umpqua Community College (UCC) around 9:30 Friday night. The active crime scene was secured, thanks in part to Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) workers. There were a dozen media trucks and vans (both local and national) parked along the road. I parked among them and walked along the sidewalk, chatting with media folks and ODOT workers. The scene was mostly quiet, with cameras and reporters springing to action only at the “top of the hour” when the national news would pick up the satellite feed for the reporters to report on what was known. After the cameras were turned off, the scene was calm again. It was an eye opening experience for me. The real story wasn’t happening in front of the cameras. It was happening behind them.
The real story wasn’t about the shooter’s motives. It was about the carload of Roseburg citizens who drove up and handed ODOT workers trays of cups of coffee, thanking them for their service. The real story wasn’t about gun control. It was about the ODOT workers insisting that I have a cup, despite me trying to be there to support them. The story on camera at the top of the hour wasn’t the real story.
I walked to the nearby state police office and found two officers closing up for the night. A family with kids in tow was there, delivering boxed meals to the officers. I shook the officers’ hands and thanked them. I couldn’t image what they must have dealt with that day, yet they wanted to make sure that I had a place to spend the night. That family and those officers showed me more of the real story. The real story is that Roseburg is a strong community that automatically sprang into action supporting friends, family, and fellow citizens in a time where there was no good explanation for the tragedy that occurred. I could tell that is how the people there live—as a real community.
The following day I met many other impressive citizens who further proved Roseburg’s strength: the young women working at the coffee shop who were planning to donate their tips to the families of those who lost their lives at UCC, the store clerk who waited in line over six hours at the Red Cross to donate blood, the music store employees who invited folks into their store and witnessed a spontaneous jam session take place between strangers who just needed some music therapy. These people were living the real story.
But the real story also has a negative side—little access to long-term psychiatric care in Oregon (especially rural Oregon). What happens when the camera crews and disaster relief teams leave Roseburg? The disaster response was great with multiple counselors and support staff from the Red Cross and United States Public Health Service traveling to Roseburg from all over the country. When I visited the community mental health clinics to thank the workers, they had the situation well under control. But as I talked with mental health professionals in Roseburg, I soon became frustrated by the lack of access to psychiatric care that many of us in Oregon know too well.
OPPA member and Roseburg psychiatrist Dr. George Middlekauff told me that Roseburg’s only inpatient psychiatry unit closed years ago due to lack of profitability. I spoke with a crisis nurse who asked that I ask legislators for more psychiatric beds. As in most other places in Oregon, patients wait in emergency rooms, sometimes for weeks, for inpatient psychiatric care. I met with Janet Holland, Executive Director of Community Health Alliance (Roseburg’s community mental health program). We discussed the need for long-term access to care and funding for necessary services, and hoped these needs could be met after the media attention went away.
How can we ensure that Roseburg has access to the mental health care it will need in the months and years to come? The people of Roseburg showed me how strongly they react in the face of tragedy. We owe it to them to make sure they have adequate mental health care available when they need it.
For more information, contact:
Dan Bristow, MD, Chair
Public Information and Education