Facing our demon: Mental illness

This column originally was published May 11, 2018 in the Enid News & Eagle. The data surrounding the issue of mental illness in this column is specific to Oklahoma, but the general themes hold true for America in general.


May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and few places need awareness of this issue more than Oklahoma.

I don’t mean that as a flippant gibe. I mean it in all sincerity: Our people are suffering a mental health crisis.

According to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, more than 22 percent of Oklahomans suffer from mental illness — third-worst rate in the nation.

Almost 900,000 Oklahomans are suffering from mental illness, and most — around two-thirds — don’t receive treatment.

Self-medication for mental and other illnesses drives another disturbing stat: 12 percent of Oklahomans struggle with substance abuse disorders or addiction — second-worst rate in the nation.

Why do Oklahomans suffer so horribly with mental illness and addiction?

It’s no mystery. Follow the money: it’s not going to treatment, or better yet, prevention.

ODMHSAS received $11 million more in funding for next year, but that’s paltry compensation for the almost $53 million in cuts over the last four years — cuts that have cost an additional $80 million in federal matching money.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation 2015 report, Oklahoma spends just $53 per capita annually on mental health, compared to the national average of $120 — placing Oklahoma 46th nationally for mental health funding.

The outcomes match the funding, according to a 2017 study by the nonprofit mental advocacy group Mental Health America, which found Oklahoma placed 45th among the states for mental health outcomes among youth.

It’s no secret Oklahoma is strapped for cash. But, our cuts in mental health funding are driving up long-term costs that will have dire consequences.

Without access to early intervention, case management and effective treatment, that fifth of our population suffering from mental illness all-too-often ends up in police custody, emergency rooms and funeral homes — all options that cost far more in the long run, and have far less desirable outcomes than an effective and properly-funded mental health system.

That’s not just an Okie problem. America in general has fumbled mental health treatment since the Great Recession, setting ourselves up for far-more expensive social and fiscal costs in the long run.

Thomas Insel, then director of the National Institute of Mental Health, summed it up this way in 2014: “The way we pay for mental health today is the most expensive way possible.”

But the dollars and cents pale in comparison to the human cost of untreated mental illness.

One in five. Think about the people around you. At work. At church. In your family.

If you regularly interact with 100 people, 22 of them suffer from mental illness. About 13 aren’t receiving the treatment they need.

Those 13 often suffer in silence, with few or no options for treatment and a repressive, persistent social stigma surrounding mental illness.

Many bear the pain as long as they can. And then, they no longer can.

According to the Ameri­can Foundation for Suicide Prevention, someone in our state takes their own life once every 11 hours, on average, giving the state the eighth-highest suicide rate in the nation.

Most of us know someone who has made that irrevocable choice.

None of our grief, our second-guessing or any of the emotional maelstrom that comes after suicide can change what’s already happened.

But, what this month calls for is for us — as a state, as individuals, families and churches — to begin making changes that could improve outcomes for those suffering mental illness, and reduce the number of Oklahomans unnecessarily being drug by their illness into prison, addiction and suicide.

How can we effect that change?

First, it’s an election year. Vote. Make funding for mental health treatment and illness prevention a priority — a priority that saves our state far more in the long run.

And, tackle the stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental illness.

In our families, our churches, our jobs — wherever we find ourselves, we have to stop viewing mental health as a taboo that can’t be discussed.

Mental illness is just that — an illness. We need to treat it with the same concern, compassion and compelling interest in treatment as we do cancer, diabetes or any other life-threatening ailment.

If you need help, please seek it out. If you love someone who needs help, please show compassion and support.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, or in emotional distress, free, immediate help is available on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273‑TALK (8255).

We can do better, Oklahoma. And we need to.

3 thoughts on “Facing our demon: Mental illness

  1. Thank you for raising awareness, James. Following the money in mental health services is spot on. Prisons have replaced mental health institutions that were in the 1970’s. Rather than increase community-based support services, we just transferred people to prisons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting. Yes, we’ve pushed a lot of social issues into our prisons, which are unprepared to deal with these issues. About 10 years ago, Oklahoma all-but eliminated mental health treatment for prisoners in state custody. They’re worse when they’re released than when they went in. The system — pun acknowledged — is insane.


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