May 28, 2021

Mercedes White Calf can still recall when she was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After suffering a manic episode, she was living on the streets of Los Angeles and Portland for more than two years, and using drugs to self-medicate.

“I ended up living downtown behind Greyhound in a tent, on park benches, wherever I could sleep,” she remembers. 

Since being diagnosed in 2019, White Calf has graduated from a recovery program and now lives successfully on her own in an apartment with a car and a full-time job.

“It’s sustainable, I’m able to show up to work and organize, and just participate as a normal civilian and do the normal things that everyone else does without having my diagnosis be a fear or limit me,” she says.

White Calf, whose mother is Native American and also suffered from undiagnosed mental health struggles, points out that one of the reasons her challenges went undiagnosed for so long was the lack of resources available to people in the Native community. 

“Historically our tribes didn’t have access to adequate healthcare, and she didn’t even know where to look,” White Calf says. “Some people are aware of resources but are unwilling, but she honestly didn’t even know. So I’m trailblazing that for my family.”

White Calf was one of several speakers who shared their experiences Thursday before the Board of County Commissioners proclaimed May 2021 as Mental Health Month.

Among the presenters was Interim Behavioral Health Division Director Julie Dodge, who shared that one of her close friends and mentees, Anna, had recently died by suicide after struggling with mental health struggles throughout her life. 

“For me, today, Anna is why this work matters. Living with mental health issues can be challenging, but it is not without hope,” she said.

Dodge has worked in mental health for 25 years, focusing on prevention grounded in resilience. 

“Resilience is often talked about as our ability to bounce back after hard things. I beg to differ. Resilience is demonstrated in the skills and the abilities that each of us has — our emotional, social, cognitive, and everyday skills, [in] the experiences that each of us lives through — both good and bad — and the values and beliefs that each of us holds which give us a sense of meaning and hope” she said.

The Board of County Commissioners and panelists celebrate after adopting the proclamation declaring May 2021 as Mental Health Month in Multnomah County.
LaKeesha Dumas, an Office of Consumer Engagement Coordinator for the Multnomah County Behavioral Health Division, who also has lived experience with a mental health diagnosis, read the proclamation

After the proclamation, Commissioner Sharon Meieran described the presentation as “powerful,” and shared that she also suffers from depression and anxiety. 

“Everything that all of you said really exemplifies those concepts of hope and resilience,” she said.

“These things are incurable, we know that. But they can be managed, there is hope. Just like with a medical illness, you have ups, you have downs, but you come back.”

She also applauded Dumas for the work she has done with the County, crediting her for “providing an example for exactly the kind of work we need to be doing.” 

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal seconded Meieran’s sentiments and credited each speaker for their “profound” words. She added that though we have rightfully focused on physical health this year, mental health is incredibly important, as well.

“I feel like we almost ought to keep track of numbers and information to understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandmeic on mental health, as well as physical health,” she said.

Chair Deborah Kafoury thanked the speakers for helping to destigmatize mental health diagnoses so people in the community know they are not alone.

“Hearing your stories helps people understand where they can be and how they can get there,” she said. “Because of the advocacy and efforts of all of you, I think we’re making some real strides towards chipping away at that stigma, story by story, and person by person. Your collective voices are building a powerful movement for change.”

She also underscored how the COVID-19 pandemic has made things harder for community members living with and without a mental health diagnosis. 

“It’s not always been easy to reach out and find help, but it’s been especially hard during the pandemic. But I feel the tide is turning and I do have some optimism as our community begins to open back up again,’’ the Chair said. “We’ve learned that there are new ways to reach people and we’ve seen people adapt in amazing and creative ways, working to maintain that connection and support which is so crucial. I hope we will continue to carry it forward to make treatment even more accessible.”