The widespread toll that fear, social isolation and tragedies suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic became clear last fall as children returned to school. Teachers reported increased behavioral problems in the classroom, students engaged in fights and counselors saw large spikes in the number of students struggling with thoughts of suicide.
But while the pandemic exacerbated behavioral health problems – for adults as well as youth – such challenges and the lack of adequate help are not new. Oregon is routinely called out for being remarkably terrible in meeting the need for counseling, addiction treatment and other services. Poor access to care, along with a high prevalence of substance use disorders, major depressive episodes and other behavioral health problems consistently lands Oregon at or near the bottom of states in Mental Health America’s annual rankings.
It is a colossal understatement, then, to say how welcome the announcement last week was that University of Oregon alum Connie Ballmer and her husband, former Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, are donating $425 million to establish an institute for children’s behavioral health in Portland . The generosity of their gift and the ambitions of their vision reflects a humbling commitment to Oregon and its youth at a time when few others have advanced game-changing ideas or investment that can alter the trajectory. The Ballmers and UO deserve Oregonians’ gratitude and leaders’ full-fledged support in fulfilling these goals.
As The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Jeff Manning reported, the planned Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health aims to bring together UO’s professors, researchers and students to work with public schools, community groups and families in developing and providing mental health treatment for kids. Based in Portland, the institute would eventually broaden its focus from working with Portland Public Schools youth to K-12 schools around the state – a critical goal to articulate now. As difficult as it is for people in urban areas to access behavioral health services, it’s an even bigger challenge in many rural communities where there are far too few providers and needs are just as urgent.
The university also plans to offer a new undergraduate and certificate degree programs for students at the institute that will eventually graduate 200 behavioral health practitioners a year, helping fill the massive need locally, around the state and across the country for a trained mental health workforce.
Another perk of the plan? The UO plans to site the institute at the Northeast Portland campus that formerly housed Concordia University, which shut down in 2020. While the purchase has yet to be completed, the campus would be ideal for the program and would help ease the bitterness lingering from Concordia’s abrupt closure.
It’s important to highlight that such a transformational gift is coming from someone who grew up in Oregon and feels invested in its future. Connie Ballmer graduated from Oregon City High School, earned her journalism degree from UO in 1984 and served as a UO trustee from the creation of the school’s independent board in 2014 until 2020. As a trustee, she led the university’s search in 2014 for a new president, which culminated in the hiring of Michael Schill, who has brought stability as well as billions in new donations to the university that he continues to lead. Connie and her husband have already donated tens of millions to the university for scholarships and health research. This new incredible gift shows just how much Oregonians can give back when we remember to invest in them from the start.
-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board
Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.
Members of the board meet regularly to determine our institutional stance on the issues of the day. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can lend clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from news articles.