Mental health in Oklahoma: 'We turn people away every day who need help'

by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: June 9, 2013

George's psychiatrist used to tell his family members to lie to the doctors.

“You have to lie and say he's harmful to you,” the psychiatrist would tell them.

Because when George was in the midst of a psychotic break, he could still fake sanity. Even if he thought he was Jesus Christ, he knew not to tell anyone that.

“Especially when you're grandiose, you have the ability to really pull some thoughts together,” George said.

George and his family knew what would happen: If George wasn't suicidal, he was going home. If he wasn't going to hurt someone else, he was going home. Believing he was a savior didn't merit a bed at a psychiatric unit.

The laws are specific: If an adult isn't a danger to himself or others, he cannot be held against his will. And oftentimes, that's how it's decided who will get treatment, because turning away those who are dangerous has potentially lethal consequences. Meanwhile, George and a lot of other people can't get help until they're so unstable they might break.

Oklahoma ranks No. 2 in the nation for its rates of mental illness but No. 46 in the amount of state money budgeted per capita for mental illness.

Over the past three years, Gov. Mary Fallin and the state Legislature have allocated millions more to address the problems Oklahoma faces, including allocating money for suicide prevention.

“But they are trying to overcome decades of underfunding, and you can't do all that in just three years,” said Terri White, Oklahoma's mental health commissioner. “The biggest problem we have right now is lack of resources.”

A bright future fades

Before college, George was a straight-A student and a leader on his high school football team. Once he got to college, his desire to excel ended quickly, though. He started making C's, and he was redshirted on the football team.

George, 66, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1970, shortly after he graduated from Stanford University in California.

“I've been hospitalized 35 to 40 times in my 43 years,” he said. “I've changed jobs about 15 times because the bipolar issues and the anxiety issues make it very difficult to hold down a job. I have been functioning fairly well ... for the last seven and a half years.”

Last October, two police officers approached George's home. They told him they had an emergency order of detention for him, and they were going to take him to a hospital in Norman.

Earlier that week, George's psychologist had told George he didn't think he was stable. George has always been diligent in taking his medicine. But sometimes, his medicine can't keep his brain from falling into a psychotic break.

That day, George looked out into his driveway. The officers had blocked off the street. He decided to go with them without any problems. The rest of the story is foggy.

“Maybe I'm maturing, maybe I'm finally accepting responsibility for my illness and know because of my illness, I have to go endure things that seem barbaric at times.”

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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