ELK CITY — At the end of May, Dr. Leland Dennis will retire from psychiatry, leaving Elk City and the surrounding area without a psychiatrist.
Oklahoma has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the nation. Throughout the state, especially in rural areas, Oklahoma lacks enough providers because psychiatrists serve mostly in and around the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas. An estimated 70 percent of adults who need mental health treatment do not get it, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Dennis knows how badly he’s needed, but he also knows that he needs distance from medicine.
After many years in practice, Dennis, 56, has grown more comfortable asking patients about traumatic experiences that can impact families. But his own experience magnified the issue for him.
Havi Dennis was only 3 when she asked her parents to call Grandpa back from heaven.
“What do you mean ‘call him back?’” they asked her.
“I died and went to heaven, and Mom called me back,” she told them.
It was a story Dennis and his wife, Deborah, hadn’t yet heard from their daughter, an experience she had during an open heart surgery that almost ended her life.
Eight years later, Havi looked over her mother’s shoulder as she was being loaded into the ambulance and said, “I don’t want to stay.” She died later that day from an acute illness.
“For the longest time, we struggled because Deborah said it was very clear she wasn’t looking at her,” Leland Dennis said. “We initially thought Havi was saying she didn’t want to stay at the hospital, but I think, looking back ...she had a connection with Jesus, with God, and I think she looked over Deborah’s shoulder at Jesus and said ‘I don’t want to stay here on the Earth.’”
Frustration in medicine
Losing Havi isn’t the only reason Dennis plans to retire. His frustration continues to grow with the limitations he faces in providing medicine to his patients.
Dennis moved his practice from Oklahoma City to Elk City after being recruited by a physician leaving the area. He opened Rivers Edge Mental Health, in hopes of building a practice with a child psychologist and other mental health providers.
But that business concept failed. It was difficult to recruit doctors to the area, and patients’ insurance providers sometimes wouldn’t pay for care.
It also was difficult for patients to pay for the care themselves.
Dennis sees a high rate of poverty among his patients. Many are poor and cannot afford medications that could help better control their symptoms.
And even if they do have insurance, companies have restrictions on which drugs Dennis can prescribe.