More than 630,000 Oklahomans suffer from some form of mental illness, ranking Oklahoma as one of the worst states in the nation for overall mental health, according to a new report released by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Oklahoma trails only West Virginia for the percentage of residents with a severe mental illness, and only Utah in the percentage of residents suffering from mental illness of any kind.
“The report is startling,” said Oklahoma Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White. “Oklahoma has the biggest problem in the nation and is struggling with these things that are treatable.”
Among those ages 18 and older, the rate of serious mental illness across the nation averaged 4 percent, ranging from 3.1 percent in New Jersey to 5.5 percent in West Virginia. In Oklahoma, 5.24 percent of residents were found to suffer from diseases such as schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar or anxiety disorders.
Nationally, 18.2 percent of the population is reported to suffer from some form of mental illness, ranging from 14.66 percent in New Jersey to 22.35 in Utah. The figure in Oklahoma is 22 percent.
The numbers would be even higher if those younger than 18 were included, White said.
Despite the huge numbers, the state lacks the resources to combat the problem. More than 70 percent of adult Oklahomans with mental illness receive no treatment, mostly due to a lack of access to help.
The state has a chronic shortage of psychiatric beds and most are nearly always filled. With the December closure of Deaconess Hospital in Bethany, the mental health community lost 60 more desperately needed psychiatric beds, said Traci Cook, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Even just getting in to see a psychiatrist or counselor can sometimes take three months, Cook said.
“When I see numbers that were in this report I start to panic,” Cook said. “Access is an enormous problem already. Unfortunately, my staff and I have gotten very good at helping people put their loved ones in a holding pattern until help is available to them instead of getting them immediate help.”
White compares mental health treatment to an emergency room where the people with the worst conditions are treated first.
For mental health, that is a backwards approach, White said.
“Can you imagine if we didn’t treat other diseases until they got to that critical stage?” she said.
The most unfortunate part of Oklahoma’s situation is how treatable the problem is, said Dr. Brent Bell, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at St. Anthony Hospital.
Left untreated, mental illness often contributes to smoking, addiction and heart disease, lowering the overall health of the state.
“A person without treatment might die 20 years younger,” Bell said. “It just compounds. Good, early treatment is proven to work.”
White’s hope is that these numbers will open the eyes of policymakers to the need for increased funding to provide more access to those in need.
Oklahoma spends about $53 per capita on mental health treatment while the nation’s average is $120, White said. She believes more funding would save taxpayer money in the long run by cutting the number of people in the criminal justice system, in foster care and seeking treatment in hospital emergency rooms.
“We have had decades of neglect to overcome and if we are not going to treat this like the crisis it is, then things will not change,” White said. “Mental illness is not just ‘those people.’ It’s in every one of our families. It touches everybody and it doesn’t discriminate. The classroom of private schools and public schools. It’s in your fellow co-workers, it’s in our servicemen and women. It’s everywhere.”