The state of mental health in Oklahoma is frustrating, but optimism springs. That’s how Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, describes her feelings when talking about Oklahoma and its treatment of mental health.
“Often, mental health is overlooked when talking about health,” White said before a crowd of lawyers at the Oklahoma Bar Association annual convention. “It’s frustrating because mental health is a disease. But when we talk about disease of the brain, we treat it differently.”
White emphasized there should be no difference between treating a person with heart disease and a person with mental health disease, whether it’s schizophrenia or drugs and alcohol.
“We need to stop treating mental health as something separate,” White said.
Just to prove how prevalent people with mental diseases are in Oklahoma, White laid out the hard facts: One in four Oklahomans suffer a mental health issue; nearly half of all Oklahoma incarcerated inmates have a mental disease; half of all mental health diseases develop by the age of 14.
And White had a dire prediction if change doesn’t take place.
“We (Oklahoma) are going broke because of the consequences of these diseases.”
In other words, the money the state has to shell out to treat people with mental health problems will overburden the health care system. White said it costs the state’s prison system $40 a day to treat a mentally ill inmate, whereas White’s agency can do it for $25 a day.
One of the problems White addressed is the stigma associated with mental health issues. In the area of drugs and alcohol, she said, people need to recognize it as a disease of the brain and that drug addiction starts between the ages of 9 and 14.
“People say it’s a choice to take drugs and alcohol. But it’s a choice being made by 9 to 14 year olds. That’s not when we make our best choices.”
White is encouraged by the success of Oklahoma’s drug courts to deal with keeping people addicted to drugs out of jail and getting them into treatment. But, she is concerned Oklahomans’ tough on crime attitude could curtail the advances made by drug courts.
White believes until the stigma of treating mental health differently from other diseases is broken, the problem will only get worse.
“It’s time to say ‘no more shame.’ Mental disease is not a different disease ” it’s just a different organ in the body.”
The stigma extends beyond courts and jails; it includes the workplace as well. White said mental health problems are the second leading cause of job absenteeism and are causing some employers to dismiss workers.
“We wouldn’t fire somebody for having asthma,” she said.
Now the good news: White said she is encouraged by some of the recent developments from the state and health community. She raised three initiatives which could bring about change ” the State Insurance Coverage Initiative, the Core Health Benefits Task Force and the Health Care Task Force, led by Chris Benge, Oklahoma Speaker of the House. “Scott Cooper