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

by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: June 9, 2013

A place to calm down

Hundreds of Oklahomans in crisis walk through the doors of the Oklahoma County Crisis Intervention Center.

On a Friday night in March, staff members stood in a mostly quiet room, noting that it's a calm night so far. The night before, they had treated about 10 people in 11 hours.

A young woman, probably in her 20s, is in the hallway in a white tank top and animal print shorts. She's effortlessly placing each arm in the air and walking gently forward. From the outside, it appears she's on a balance beam. Or maybe she's a ballet dancer.

Regardless, she's coming down from anger and confusion.

Moments earlier, she was headed to the bathroom with a security guard when she used a few lines of expletive-laced sentences. “Don't f--- with me!” she said.

But for now, she's calm.

“See, she's not hurting anybody,” said Chris Flanagan, the center's interim director. “She's not a danger.”

If she weren't at the crisis center, the woman could be misunderstood as dangerous. While at the center, she requested an antipsychotic medicine to calm her, and she'll probably leave in a few hours.

The crisis center is broken into two areas — the urgent care unit and the residential unit. People are allowed to stay on the urgent care side for 23 hours and 59 minutes. After that, law requires they have a bed somewhere or be released.

The urgent care unit at the crisis center is a new concept, started in the past few years. It's an effort to give people a place to sit and calm down. If they're able to calm down, then maybe they won't need a bed somewhere. And then maybe that bed can go to someone else.

“There are a lot of people who look pretty bad but in 18 hours can look very different,” Flanagan said. “It is really hard to tell.”

‘Not ill enough'

On a recent Monday afternoon at the state Capitol, Terri White stood in the fourth-floor rotunda with a microphone, screaming.

She was joined by about 80 people. They all wanted — and screamed — the same thing.

“My mind matters,” they screamed. “Fund mental health.” Every corner of the building likely heard the echoes of their demand.

As the state mental health commissioner, White is not subtle in addressing what Oklahoma needs. Essentially, the state needs more of everything: crisis centers, hospital beds and especially outpatient services.

About 620,000 adults in Oklahoma have a mental illness. Meanwhile, about 65,000 people received mental health treatment through an Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services facility.

White knows that people are regularly turned away because they're not “ill enough.” And providers have to serve the sickest people first — the people who might hurt themselves or others.

“We turn people away every day who need help because they aren't ill enough, and we just don't have enough money to pay our contractors to hire enough therapists and provide enough medication to reach people,” White said. “So then they get sicker, and finally, they do meet the criteria.”