Mental Health Awareness Month a time to celebrate hope, renewal

May 13, 2022

Jen Godwin’s oldest son struggled even with life’s basic tasks. He couldn’t pay attention long enough to brush his teeth. He couldn’t control his emotions either. By age 5, he was taking medications. During grade school he would fly into fits during class. 

Godwin would field rapid-fire crisis calls from teachers demanding she come and calm her son down. She would have to hold him tight, sometimes for nearly an hour, before he would relax. By age 9 he was running away from home. 

Jen Godwin, center, tells commissioners about how Wraparound services helped her son and her family find stability.

Godwin spent countless hours searching for programs or services, but the state ultimately took custody of the boy, and Godwin’s two younger children. 

“I had run out of all my options, accessed all the resources, researched all I could,” she said. Then someone mentioned a Multnomah County program called Wraparound. The program provides comprehensive family-centered support for youth experiencing serious mental health or behavioral challenges. 

Godwin met her Wraparound care coordinator, Bobbie Simmons, the day she was called into a local hospital, where her son was being held after running away from his foster placement. 

“I walk into the hospital, and it feels like the world is against me,” Godwin recalled. Then Simmons walked up to her and introduced herself. Never again did Godwin feel alone.

“I would not have made it without Bobbie,” she said.

Mental Health Year

Godwin was among those who spoke Thursday as the Board of County Commissioners declared May 2022 as Mental Health Awareness Month in Multnomah County. 

Symptoms of depression and anxiety are on the rise among people of all ages, as is community violence and reports of substance use disorder. 

“For the last two years, we have seen this acute crisis rising and rising, and we hear all the time how people are struggling,” said Behavioral Health Division Interim Director Julie Dodge. “The pandemic has really highlighted the disparities we see, racial disparities, disparities associated with poverty, lack of access. We have this opportunity to say, ‘How do we move towards hope and healing?’”

“The impact of the pandemic is clear,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran, referencing a recent survey showing one-in-three people in Oregon report symptoms of anxiety and depression. “It’s tragic.” 

Meieran said increases in rates of depression and suicidality among youth are particularly alarming. Too often youth end up in the emergency room because of an issue concerning their mental wellbeing. Meieran, who also works as an emergency room doctor, said she’s seen kids as young as 8 boarded in the emergency room rather than cared for in a program specific to their needs. Meieran is sponsoring a youth mental health forum on May 21.

“I’m so glad we recognize May as mental health month,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “We really need to recognize mental health year, making sure people recognize there are places people can go for help, and making that a normalized part of our lives — not just in May, but year-round.”

Behavioral Health is embedded in programs across the County, from student health centers and primary care clinics, to shelters for people experiencing homelessness, to ambulance services, to teams working with juveniles and adults who are caught up in the criminal justice system.

The Behavioral Health Division provides a continuum of safety-net services – directly, but also through a provider and peer network – to about 53,000 people a year. Those programs support people who are low-income, uninsured, or experiencing homelessness. 

The Division also provides oversight and coordination for a 24-hour, year-round crisis response system that serves all of the County’s more than 800,000 residents. It includes the Mental Health Call Center, mobile crisis outreach and urgent walk-in clinic.

The Division has a suite of programs focused on children and youth who need more support than what a child or family therapist might be able to provide. In addition to Wraparound, the Division provides Intensive Care Coordination and Early Psychosis Intervention.

The County's goal is to normalize mental wellbeing in the same way communities support physical wellbeing.

“Mental healthcare should not only come during an emergency,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann. “It should be built into our lives every day.”

A lot of healing

For Jen Godwin, her son’s mental health already consumed her waking hours. But by the end of 2017, she felt hopeless, having spent years trying services and programs that didn’t help her son.

As Godwin faced the prospect of fighting for her kids, she felt like the world was against her. She was, by then, living in her car and surviving off a meager Social Security income. The struggles for life’s basic necessities. coupled with the anger and helplessness at losing her kids, made some days feel near impossible to hold onto the sobriety she had built up after an addiction to methamphetamines. 

But knowing someone had her back and believed in her kept her going.

“Not a single person gave a damn, but Bobbie,” Godwin said. “I have never had anyone be there for me. And she was. She would ask, ‘Did you eat? Did you sleep?’ Had it not been for Bobbie, I would have never gotten my kids back.”

In meetings with child protective services, Godwin often felt state workers dismissed her. But when she would ask a question that went unanswered, Simmons would step in.

“Ms. Godwin asked a question,” Godwin remembered Simmons would say. And when Godwin got mad, and wanted to give up, Simmons would remind her what was at stake.

“When I had those big emotions, she would let me have my minute,” Godwin said. But just for a moment. 

“I’m not there to hold your hand,” Simmons would say. “You want your kids back, you better do x, y and z.”

And she did. She hunted for an apartment and in 2019 convinced the landlord to take a chance on her. Within 24 hours, Simmons dropped off a check for her first and last month's rent, along with the security deposit. 

Meanwhile Godwin spent time with her son at his residential treatment center. With the help of the Wraparound program, her son got the testing he needed and the support he deserved. Her two youngest children moved in with her in 2019. And her oldest son came home in 2020.

Her son is 14 now and no longer on an exhaustive cocktail of pills. He’s back in school, and studying independently at home. And he’s doing well, Godwin said.

While program staff remind Godwin that she’s the one who did the hard work, Godwin says she couldn’t have done it without Simmons at her side. 

“She has been there 100 percent, supporting, connecting, understanding. Not trying to judge, control or dictate,” Godwin said. “Through Bobbie there has been a lot of healing. Through Wraparound there has been a lot of healing.”