The statistics are staggering.
Nearly half of all Americans will develop a mental illness during their lifetime, according to data from the National Comorbidity Survey.
More than a quarter of adults in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental health problem, but only about half seek treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates about 22 percent of Oklahomans have some form of mental health issue.
Advocates say the heart of the problem is a fragmented system of care spanning the public and private market, spilling over into nonprofit or community care, and in many cases, the prison system.
“Mental disorders are more prevalent than heart disease, diabetes, stroke ... As a society we don't take it as seriously as some other health problems because of the stigma of being identified,” said Harry Tyler, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Central Oklahoma.
Tyler said education is critical to getting help to people and in breaking down the barriers to care, including the stigma often associated with mental illness.
Tragedies highlight issue
“I'm angry over what has happened in Connecticut,” he said, referring to the Sandy Hook School shootings that killed 26 people Dec. 14. “It angers me when things like this happen, and there are warning signs that are ignored.”
Though investigators haven't said definitively whether the shooter, Adam Lanza, suffered from any mental illness, the tragedy has nonetheless spurred discussion about mental health, particularly in the wake of other tragedies when mental illness has been at the fore.
Jared Loughner — who is serving seven life sentences for the 2011 Tucson, Ariz., shootings that killed six people, badly wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and wounded 13 others — has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Defense attorneys for the suspect in Colorado's deadly movie theater attack, James Holmes, have said he's mentally ill.
The majority of adults with diagnosable conditions, however, do not get any treatment, according to the American Hospital Association's Trendwatch report.
The most common reason is cost, followed by patients' believing they can handle the illness on their own, don't have time for treatment and don't know where to go to get help, the report shows.
There is only one psychiatrist or psychologist in Oklahoma for every 3,500 residents. While the number of licensed counselors, therapists and behavioral practitioners is higher, there is still only one of them for every 530 Oklahomans.
“There is just not enough help out there,” Tyler said.
“Mental illness and addiction are diseases of the brain. They're diseases like any other and we still struggle for people to accept that,” said Terri White, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
“We have a huge gap in services.”
White said primary care doctors are improving at asking questions and detecting mental health issues, but some still don't screen for those problems.
“Until these diseases are fully integrated into our health care communities, there are going to be gaps in services,” she said.
White said Oklahoma consistently ranks near the bottom for funding one of the most common problems in Oklahoma and the country.
“When we have that low level of funding for mental health services, it feels like we're rolling the dice every day,” she said.
‘Taking away lives'
Dr. R. Murali Krishna, chief operating officer of Integris Mental Health and the James L. Hall Jr. Center for Mind, Body and Spirit, said there has to be a shift in how mental illness is perceived before access and treatment issues can be fixed.
He said people perceive mental illness in almost a mythical way — it's understood on the periphery but often isn't seen as other bodily diseases.
“There's misunderstanding that it's a weakness, that it's sin or that we're inadequate if we face mental illness,” he said. “People were tortured, imprisoned and punished historically for these diseases, and that's at the root of the stigma.”
Mental disorders can impact the body on a major level, Krishna said.
Untreated mental disorders increase one's chances for heart attacks and other health problems.
“These diseases are taking our lives away decades sooner, but we still assign only a small percentage of health care to mental health care costs,” he said. “We must do a better job of informing and changing the prefixed opinions about mental disorders.”