Oklahoma can't continue to roll the dice on mental health

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: April 21, 2013

TERRI White uses the following analogy to illustrate how Oklahoma deals with people who need help for substance abuse or mental health problems:

A person goes to the emergency room with chest pains and the doctor finds that the heart is 20 percent damaged. But instead of repairing the problem, the doctor tells the patient to return when the heart has worsened because limited resources dictate that only those with really bad hearts can be treated.

“You'd be like, ‘Are you kidding me? Your idea is I go away and I just wait for my heart to get more and more damaged and then I come back?'” And yet, White said, “That is literally how our mental health and substance abuse treatment works.”

As head of the state agency charged with providing resources to combat Oklahoma's mental health and substance abuse issues, that's a frustrating reality, one she has worked six years to improve.

The good news is that improvements have been made. The agency's Smart on Crime initiative, which provides treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent offenders with mental illness or addictions, has been a success during its two years in place. At Gov. Mary Fallin's urging, it got $3 million each of those years. That's a far cry from the $100 million per year needed to really make a difference — not just in treatment, but in savings that would be realized on the back end — but White will take what she can get.

She's likely to get more for the upcoming fiscal year. Fallin in February requested an additional $16 million for mental health and substance abuse services. Her call came not long after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, which was carried out by a man with a history of mental illness.

Oklahoma, thank goodness, hasn't experienced such an event. But, “I feel like we roll the dice every day,” White says, because so many of those who need help don't get it. Indeed, she said her agency can assist only a third of Oklahomans who need it. There are 600 to 900 people per day on the waiting list for residential substance abuse treatment.

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