Oklahoma Watch: Q&A with Oklahoma Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Terri White

BY WARREN VIETH For The Oklahoman Published: February 17, 2013
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Q: Would screening occur in schools?

A: We have some amazing partnerships already with schools. But we have many, many schools we still haven't reached. The need is still huge.

Q: Is Oklahoma doing all that it could to make sure guns don't wind up in the hands of people with serious mental or emotional problems?

A: There is a national registry for persons that have been identified with mental illness. Our state could submit names to that. However, our state law currently prohibits us from doing so. There's legislation this year to allow Oklahoma to begin submitting names to that database. It's a joint effort between the district attorneys' council, our agency, the administrative office of the courts and the (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation).

Q: Have you had any personal experience or exposure to mental illness or addiction in your life?

A: I have family members who have struggled with the issue of addiction and mental health, primarily addiction. We've had a lot of alcoholism in my family.

If you ever meet someone who says that they have not been touched by mental illness or addiction, either personally or in their families or with a close friend, they simply don't realize it. One in four Oklahomans struggle with mental health and addiction issues in their lifetimes.

Q: What would you consider your biggest success so far?

A: A real change in the culture and a commitment to evidence-based, data-driven practices, as well as a commitment to stretching our dollars as far as possible. Some people would put those together and call it being cost-effective.

It's the right thing to do for taxpayers in every case, but it is critical when you're an agency that historically has been as underfunded as we have.

Mental illness is the third-leading cause of chronic disease in this state, yet we are funded 46th per capita to treat mental illness. We have one of the lowest rates of spending in the nation.

Q: What is your biggest worry? What keeps you awake at night?

A: Probably my biggest worry is just how huge the treatment gap is in Oklahoma.

Every night there are people going to bed in this state who didn't get the help they need … On any given day, we have 600 to 900 Oklahomans who've actually made the step to ask for substance abuse treatment. They've had an assessment. They need residential inpatient services, and every single bed in the state is full.

Q: How does Oklahoma's suicide rate compare with other states?

A: We're 13th highest in the nation, which is absolutely unacceptable. Suicide is a preventable cause of death.

If you think somebody might even be considering it, ask the question directly: Are you thinking of killing yourself? People will often answer honestly … If you ask that question, then get them on the phone with a professional or the crisis hotline, you can save a life.

Q: How do you make the case that your department deserves a bigger share of the state budget than others?

A: Why do we deserve a bigger piece? It's not simply because we've been historically neglected. It's because we are the biggest public health problem, the most costly when left untreated, and we are the entity that is committed to using evidence-based programs with proven outcomes so that taxpayers know that every dime spent here is going save them a dollar somewhere else.

We've gone from 2,200 employees when I started to about 1,800 employees. We have lost services in local communities. Our waiting list has increased. We lost about 96 substance abuse treatment beds. We have had over $3 million in cuts to our private provider network over the last several years.

Q: But some legislators seem to believe that government is just too big and that the solution is to shrink government across the board.

A: If the goal is to shrink government and spend less … put the dollars here. We can save you money in corrections, we can save you money in uncompensated health care, we can save you money in foster care.

If you really want to shrink the state budget, then you invest here to prevent these negative consequences that are costing you millions of dollars.