Terri White, director of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, visited last week with The Oklahoman's editorial board to discuss her agency and the issue of mental health in the state. Here are excerpts:
Mental illness is the third-leading cause of chronic illness in the state behind only pulmonary conditions and hypertension. It's more common than stroke, diabetes ... and I think somehow people tend to forget that. When we think about being 48th, 49th, 50th in overall health, we always think heart disease, obesity, diabetes, which is all true. What we forget is the issues of mental illness or addiction are just as high, typically 1 or 2.
We've had a tough four years, like all agencies. We had a tougher year the first year of massive cuts than most agencies did. We took about a 7 percent cut that first year. ... As a result, there was a real recognition that ‘Gosh, when we made that deep cut, some of those things that were forecast to be true came true and it's costing us more.' So as a result of that, the last two years we've actually had smaller cuts than most state agencies. And very clearly the Legislature and the governor's office have said the reason for that is we know we'll end up paying more if we make cuts here, so if we want to be wise with our dollars, we've got to figure out a better way to do it.
One in every four ER visits is actually related to mental health, because people can't find services anywhere else, which is a terrible way to give health care. If we decided the way we were going to treat people with heart disease, instead of preventative care and getting early intervention is just wait until they have a heart attack and show up at the ER ... if that was our only way of treating it, we'd be outraged. That's kind of what happens now in the world of mental health when we don't have enough services available.