The Portland Police blotter tells us that on Tuesday, Jan. 3, a 25-year-old man approached a 78-year-old man on a TriMet platform and bit off his ear.
In case you skimmed by that one, here it is again: He bit off the man’s ear. He chewed down the man’s flesh until it exposed part of the man’s skull.
Why? Because he believed the older man was a robot trying to kill him. How did the young man know this? By smell.
The victim survived with serious injuries, but will go on living his life with the horror of having, here it is again, his ear bitten off.
At his arraignment, the accused, Koryn Kraemer, hung his head so his hair spilled over his face. His bushy beard rimmed his face like petals of a dead daisy at the end of fall.
The most startling picture, though, was of this same man six years earlier, a robust, clear-eyed 19-year-old with the flushed cheeks of an athlete. He’d played soccer goalie for Oberlin College.
Startling because we failed that young man and allowed him to become the monster who attacked a 78-year old man.
This is not a “Portland only” problem. We all know people suffering from mental illness.
Like many people in our own community, this man is, and we are, the legacy of decades of deinstitutionalization.
It started back in World War II when conscientious objectors were assigned to mental hospitals and reported with horror what they saw there: electro-shock therapy, lobotomies, restraints.
Doctors performed a lobotomy on President John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary when she was 23 years old. Kennedy called asylums the “cold mercy of isolation.” He pushed for homelike community care facilities that would emphasis prevention, treatment and rehabilitation rather than “confining patients in an institution to wither away.”
Kennedy was assassinated and his initiative never received stable funding.
Then came “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Oregon’s own Ken Kesey. The book came out in 1962, the movie in 1975, further fueling the outrage against hiding the mentally ill in sterile cement buildings with metal beds and tile covered halls.
In 1981, President Reagan signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which shifted the responsibility of the mentally ill to the states.
The goal of “least restrictive services” became not enough services. People with all kinds of psychiatric disorders walked out of care facilities and onto the streets.
The number of mentally ill in our prison system increased. Oregon Department of Corrections statistics show 29% of people in the state prison system have severe mental health problems. Look at that statistic again. Almost a third of people in Oregon prisons — not the best place to get psychiatric care — have severe mental health issues.
Addiction plays into this puzzle.
The young man in our story admitted to drinking alcohol, smoking cannabis and taking fentanyl before the attack. His former landlord said he was pleasant when not high.
Did he take drugs because he was mentally ill? Or was he mentally ill because he took drugs? Does it matter?
People in an addiction cycle often come from severe trauma and deserve our compassion. To allow a person to slip further into addiction is not compassion. It is neglect. Minds clouded by substance abuse usually don’t seek treatment on their own. They need direction to find healthy ways to process their trauma.
Keeping our distance from “them” and ignoring the problem seems like a different form of cruelty than confining our undesirables to institutions.
We are failing people, sometimes our own family members. And by “we” I mean you and me because it takes political will to overcome a problem of this magnitude, and we generate that political will.
During the 2022 general election, all three gubernatorial candidates prioritized mental health as one of the states most pressing issues. Let’s be the voices that support initiatives to provide more and better services that will turn that young Portland assailant and those like him back into the healthy athlete he once was.