Support for individuals with brain injuries and mental illness in Eugene

From a very young age Gene Obersinner saw the profound effects of mental illness in members of his family. Being the youngest of nine children Obersinner watched siblings attempt to deal with issues through self-medicating and drug use. Growing up watching his siblings numb the pain of mental illness Obersinner vowed to create a different path for himself and for individuals dealing with the issues his brothers and sisters encountered.

“I think you’ll get some variation of this story from most people you talk to in this field,” he says, “Mental illness runs in my family and because of that, by the time I was looking at college I said, ‘I want to help people and I want to help people like my siblings’.”

After graduating from San Diego State with a Masters in social work and moving back to Oregon Obersinner landed a job with Shelter Care doing assessments and treatment planning. He started at the Safe Haven program and after growing tired of the mental health work he headed over to the Uhlhorn program. Obersinner is now the volunteer coordinator for Shelter Care but has been stationed at the Uhlhorn program for the past few months. Because of his mental health expertise he steps in when the program is short staffed.

What is Uhlhorn about?

Organizations like the Uhlhorn Program of Shelter Care provide individuals with brain injuries the skills needed to get back on his or her feet and potentially reenter society. These skills include establishing routines and exercising the brain to help compensate for the injured areas.

The Uhlhorn program is for individuals 18 and older who have suffered brain injuries and are unable to be supported. The program is 24-hour staffed but residents are still required to be fairly independent. Most are clients of Senior & Disabled Services who are then referred to the Uhlhorn program if deemed eligible. Residents must be able to perform basic living functions such as cooking and cleaning but that may need some help remembering things that need to be done. Uhlhorn does not provide medical services so residents must not require onsite nursing.

How is help provided?

To an individual with no brain injury or mental illness simple day-to-day activities such as keeping appointments and cooking dinner are no big deal. But to an individual with an injury to the frontal lobe or temporal lobe these tasks don’t come as easy. The short-term memory is impaired when the temporal lobe is damaged and eventually makes it impossible to function when what was heard five minutes ago cannot be recalled.

Another skill that gets damaged with a frontal lobe injury is initiation. Having the ability to start activities, like waking up and starting the day. Those individuals with a damaged frontal lobe have a hard time pushing themselves to do things because his or her initiation ability is impaired.

At the Uhlhorn program Advocate Counselors provide individuals with brain injuries skills to cope with the loss of short-term memory. They help residents to create routines and use exercises to help improve memory skills. These are just some of the many services Uhlhorn program supplies to help individuals potentially reenter the community.

Brenna Burton, an employee at Uhlhorn volunteered with the program for 5 years and then became a full-time employee. She believes in the support and guidance that is provided at Uhlhorn. Residents at Uhlhorn might have families or spouses living in the area but need more assistance than a family member can provide and Uhlhorn gives those people a chance at being able to live with their loved ones again. Burton remembers a man whose wife didn’t know how to care for his brain injury on her own so she entered him in the program. He learned how to work with his injury and was able to move back in with his wife.

Residents are asked to keep up his or her apartment and perform basic living skills with little help from the advocate counselor’s. The advocate counselors also help residents create budgets; manage stress and anger, medication management, and community involvement.

Obersinner says he believes part of the reason the Uhlhorn program is so successful is because of the socialization aspects the program supplies. Residents are taken out into the community on walks and for other events, which help them to become more comfortable with the community and more confident in navigating the city.

Many residents “graduate” from the Uhlhorn program and are either, able to reenter the community right away or first move the Shelter Care’s River Kourt where it is only staffed for six hours a day. The River Kourt program is for individuals who are much more independent and have learnt to live functionally with his or her brain injury.

Uhlhorn gets most of its residents through referrals from Eugene’s Senior Disabled Services. Senior Disabled Services works with seniors of 60 years of age or older and connects them with resources in the community. They help with transportation, food, and medical needs depending on the amount of assistance an individual needs.

What else is available?

Similar to brain injury, mental illness affects the life of the individual as well as those surrounding them. As Obersinner mentioned before he was affected by his sibling’s mental illness and how they chose to deal with it. Uhlhorn program does not deal with mental illness specifically but there are other organizations around Eugene that offer support.

NAMI Lane County provides support through group meetings, education and advocacy. There are over 87,000 people affected by mental illness in Lane County and only a small fraction of those people seek help says Jose Soto III, executive director at NAMI Lane County. Many individuals do not know where to go for help and support unless he or she are in a crisis situation.

NAMI is looking to reach out to individuals suffering from all different sorts of mental illness. They provide support groups for recovery addicts, individuals with depression and other serious mental illness. NAMI also holds public events to educate the community about mental illness and involve individuals with the community.

Living with a mental disability or brain injury can be complicated and challenging by oneself. Even family members may not be able to help an individual with a brain injury or mental illness, but there are organizations to help. Eugene and Lane County have a few organizations that have help many and have made progress in advocacy for those who suffer from either of these issues. The help is there for those who cannot do it alone. The individuals who work with organizations such as Shelter Care and NAMI Lane County treat residents and clients with the care and support he or she deserves.


Finding Support:

Mental health issues affect 87,929 people in Lane County alone and only a small portion of those individuals seeks out or receives help. One in four people deal with mental issues at some point in life. In other words, the chances that you know someone who suffers from a mental illness are high.

There are many different forms of mental illness such as Bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Schizophrenia, Post Traumatic Stress disorder, and Tourette’s.

Some people turn to drugs and alcohol or harm themselves as a way of self-medicating, which can lead to other complications.

Along with mental illness, brain injuries such as concussions can cause temporary or permanent damage to an individual’s brain leaving them unable to do the things they once could.

Daily tasks that people without a mental illness or brain injury find simple and easy are complicated for those with a mental or brain injury. Short-term memory can be affected as well as the part of the brain that controls motivation and drive. Daily life becomes complicated when a meeting or home address is forgotten. Establishing compensatory skills can help individuals gain the confidence and ability to potentially live independently.

Organizations like the Uhlhorn Program of Shelter Care, NAMI Lane County, and Senior Disabled Services in Lane County provide individuals suffering from a mental illness or brain injury with support and resources to live with his or her disability.

Staff helps residents with daily tasks and work to help improve brain function and establish routines. Support groups are available for those recovering or dealing with a mental illness and financial help is available to those in need.

Those who think they, or someone they know, may have a mental illness should contact NAMI Lane County at (541) 343-7688 or visit For brain injury support contact Shelter Care at (541) 686-1262 or visit, or contact Senior Disabled Services at (541) 682-4567 or visit


How to diagnose and deal with a concussion:

A concussion is usually written off by doctors as a mild form of brain injury because, for the most part, a concussion is not life threatening. However, the effects of a concussion can threaten aspects of an individual’s life.

Concussions can be caused by any number of things:  playing sports, falling out of a tree, or an automotive accident. Some people may be knocked out by the impact of the accident but not losing consciousness can still result in a concussion.

One sign, and probably the most important, is not being able to remember events before or after the event occurred. This is known as amnesia. Other possible symptoms include headache and sensitivity to light and noise, irritability, and problems sleeping. Recovery from a concussion is usually quick but in some instances the concussion can last weeks, months, or even years. Recovery depends on how severe the concussion was, how healthy the person is, and how they care for themselves afterwards.

The main way to help recover from a concussion is through rest. Rest is crucial in the recovery of a concussion because it allows the brain to heal itself. Make sure to get plenty of sleep, avoid physically straining movements, or physically active sports, and keep checking in with doctors about progress. In most cases the individual will recover in a timely fashion and will be back to normal activities.

However, if the headache continues and gets worse, or the body becomes weak, and speech begins to slur there may be more than just a concussion and a doctor should be seen.

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