GOV. Mary Fallin made it a point last year to steer added state funding toward mental health services and hopes to do the same this year. It's a prudent move, one lawmakers should support.
The National Institute of Mental Health says more than one-fourth of adults in the United States have a diagnosable mental health problem. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates 22 percent of Oklahomans have a mental health issue of some kind.
This takes an enormous toll, particularly on the criminal justice system. According to the Department of Corrections, half of all state inmates have a history of, or now exhibit, some form of mental illness; one-fourth of the prison population exhibits symptoms of serious mental illness. From 1998 to 2006, our state's prison population grew by 19 percent but the number of prisoners getting psychotropic drugs increased almost threefold. In Oklahoma's two medium-security facilities for juveniles, more than half the inhabitants have significant mental health concerns, officials say.
Meantime the amount of state-allocated dollars for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services declined by about $30 million (11 percent) from fiscal year 2009 to FY 2012. Last year, Fallin's budget included new funding to build a 16-bed community crisis center. The agency also got an additional $667,000 for mental health screenings to determine the risks and needs of offenders.
Fallin wants this year to give the agency an additional $16 million. This would be used for another crisis center, to bolster programs aimed at reducing suicide and prescription drug abuse, and to help children and families with children who have serious emotional issues.
Fallin's decision not to expand the state's Medicaid program as part of Obamacare means saying no to additional federal money that could have gone to mental health coverage. The health care exchanges that are another piece of the new federal law will also make mental health-related benefits available, but Oklahoma isn't building an exchange, either.
So, Fallin and policymakers need to find other ways to continue dealing with this issue. Stateline.org reports that a number of states, which like Oklahoma have cut their mental health budgets through the years, are giving it renewed focus. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for example, wants to use $18.5 million in state money to help prop up mental health services, to include building additional crisis centers. A number of states also are looking to change their laws to make it easier to commit those whose behavior is extreme enough that it makes them a risk to others.
In an essay this month for National Review, research psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey said most of the problems related to untreated mental illness are caused by 1 percent of those who suffer from the most serious forms — bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. They account for 10 percent of all homicides in this country and 20 percent of the nation's prison population, he said.
“Tragedies related to untreated mental illness will continue to happen more often than they otherwise would until governors, state legislatures and state mental health departments are held responsible for the treatment of severely mentally ill individuals,” Torrey wrote.
And the earlier, the better. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in 10 children in the United States has a mental health condition that causes significant impairment. This translates to about 93,000 children in Oklahoma. Yet about 40 percent of Oklahoma children who need services don't get them.
Lawmakers found a way last year to help our mental health agency assist those in need. They should continue on that course in 2013.