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Oklahoma Watch: Q&A with Oklahoma Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Terri White

BY WARREN VIETH For The Oklahoman Published: February 17, 2013

It's no secret that Oklahoma consistently ranks near the bottom in state surveys of physical health indicators such as obesity, diabetes and smoking. It's less well known that Oklahoma also has some of the highest rates of mental illness and addiction.

Gov. Mary Fallin cited those statistics and the Sandy Hook massacre when she asked lawmakers to provide a $16 million funding boost next year to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services headed by Commissioner Terri White.

If the Legislature adopts Fallin's plan, White's department will use the added funding to open a new mental health crisis center, target prescription drug abuse, launch suicide prevention programs and expand counseling for disturbed children and their families.

In an interview, White explains why Oklahomans report more mental illness and addiction problems than residents of other states. She discusses what the state can do to prevent tragedies like the one in Connecticut and why she thinks her agency deserves a bigger slice of the state budget.

White, 39, is an Edmond native who received her bachelor's and master's degrees in social work from the University of Oklahoma. A former fiscal and policy analyst for the Oklahoma Senate, she has headed the mental health department since 2007.

Q: How prevalent are mental health problems in Oklahoma?

A: We're No. 2 in the nation in the number of adults struggling with mental illness. A lot of people are surprised when they hear that.

Think about our overall health rankings, though … We have high rates of all diseases in Oklahoma. So it's not surprising that we have high rates of mental illness and addiction.

The brain is simply another organ in the body. When you're in a very unhealthy state, when your population is unhealthy and has high rates of diseases, of course you're going to have high rates of brain diseases as well.

We're also a state that believes in people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. In most cases, that's a great way to approach things. But it has allowed for some misunderstanding about what mental illness and addiction are.

Q: Has the stigma of mental illness contributed to the problem?

A: The stigma around mental illness and addiction is what has allowed us to get to the point in Oklahoma where for so many years, for decades, we have not provided the resources needed to address these issues.

No one should feel shame for having a medical condition. When people show up at the emergency room because they're having a heart attack or a stroke, we don't make them feel ashamed. We really have got to get to the day when all Oklahomans understand these are diseases like any other diseases.

Q: Are there other causes?

A: We have incredibly high rates of trauma in Oklahoma … child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, the number of people that we have incarcerated … Those are huge contributors to whether someone is going to develop mental illness and addiction.

Q: What thoughts went through your head when you learned about the Sandy Hook shootings?

A: What tragedies like this bring to light is what the consequences can be when people don't receive the help they need.

When mental illness and addictions are treated, people live full and productive lives. They have families. They run companies. They represent us as our elected officials … People with mental illness and addiction can do anything when they have treatment.

Q: Realistically, is there much policymakers can do to address the problems that may have led to an incident like that?

A: Absolutely. That isn't to say that there is a guarantee that a tragedy like this won't ever occur again ... But we can certainly lessen the chances significantly.

First, we need to do screenings. We've got to identify people who are at risk. How often does your physician ask you if you're using drugs and alcohol or if you're suffering from depression? It's not happening. People aren't being identified.

Second, we've got to make people more aware of what mental health and addictions really are. That's where mental health first-aid training comes in. It helps people understand general information about mental health.

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