Impact of Mental Illness


Rob McClendon: Well, Oklahoma’s Commissioner
of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Terri White has a job that is just as much
about education as it is treatment. I visited with her in a spartan conference room just
outside her office. Rob: So, Terri, what type of impact is mental
illness having on the state of Oklahoma? Terri White: Actually mental illness is the
third leading cause of chronic disease in our state. Only pulmonary conditions and hypertension
are more common. There are more people struggling with mental illness than they are struggling
with heart disease, diabetes, cancer or a stroke in Oklahoma.
Rob: And that has to have both an economic and social impact.
White: Absolutely. Mental illness and addiction are diseases like any other disease. Just
like diabetes is a disease of the pancreas where your pancreas doesn’t secrete the right
amount of insulin, mental illness and addiction are diseases of the brain where the chemicals
in the brain aren’t being secreted correctly or in the case of addiction where because
of additional chemicals in the body are causing chemical reactions that otherwise wouldn’t
have been there. Well, just like any disease, if you have diabetes, heart disease or the
more common disease of mental illness, when it goes untreated, well, then we see dire
consequences. We see obviously the consequences to people’s health, we see the beginning of
breakup of families, you see people losing their employment when they’re struggling with
mental illness and addiction, when they don’t get access to treatment. Ultimately you can
see people ending up in the criminal justice system because they can’t get help anywhere
else. And then finally, some of the worst outcomes is when we see people who lose their
lives either due to drug overdose, suicide or other things.
Rob: I’ve seen studies that says Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of mental illness.
Why is that? White: So we actually have the second highest
rate of mental illness in the United States. And a lot of times when I say that people
say, “Well, how can that be?” Well, if you look at all of our health statistics, we’re
often ranked at the bottom. We’re not good in health. We are 48th, 49th and 50th and
that, that’s bad. So the year we were ranked 43rd we were really excited. Well, we have
high rates of all diseases, so when you have high rates of all disease, of course you’re
gonna also have high rates of brain disease. What would be really weird is if we had these
really unhealthy bodies from the neck down and had these bizarrely healthy brains trapped
in these really unhealthy bodies. But as long as we’re not healthy as a whole, we’re gonna
have high rates of mental illness and addiction because they’re just like any other disease.
It’s just that it affects a different organ – it’s the brain as opposed to the heart or
the lungs or the pancreas. Rob: So we know we have the problem. What
do we do about it? White: Well, one of the biggest challenges
we have in Oklahoma is that we’re only able to serve about one-third of Oklahomans who
need help. So on any given day about two-thirds of Oklahomans, and I’m talking about adults
and our youth because mental illness is a disease of the young — half of all mental
illness emerges by age 14, three-quarters of all mental illness emerges by age 24. And
addiction also begins when people are young. It’s not something they have to think about,
“Gosh, as I get older, as I get into my 70s or 80s, am I gonna develop mental illness
or addiction?” It doesn’t work like that. And the fact is for our youth and our adults,
about two-thirds of Oklahomans who need help can’t get access to services, and it is a
resource issue. Rob: And so when say resources, are we just
talking about money? White: And so there’s a couple of things that
we’re talking about. One of the biggest challenges, and I know it’s not everyone’s favorite topic,
but one of the biggest challenges is resources – it’s funding. Because for decades, no fault
of current administration, in fact Gov. Fallin has been very supportive of issues related
to mental illness and addiction and funding treatment and prevention. But what we know
is that for decades these issues were misunderstood and neglected, so we are now trying to recover
from decades of neglect. The other thing that we know that really gets in the way of treatment
is the stigma that surrounds mental illness and addiction. And it gets in the way in a
couple of ways: it one gets in the way of it being a funding priority. When people are
running for office they run on education, they run on roads and transportation, they
run on taxes. Very rarely do you have people who run saying, “I’m gonna help Oklahoma’s
brains in terms of mental illness and addiction,” although that would actually make a huge difference
in our state in everything, and we’ll talk about that in a second. But what we also know
is the stigma keeps people from asking for help. That somehow people will say — if I
was wearing a pink ribbon today you might know I was standing up for breast cancer,
and we would, we could talk about that. People whose children with asthma make sure that
the school nurse knows, here’s their asthma medication. We get help for heart disease.
We have beautiful new cancer centers around our state. But the fact is, with mental illness
and addiction, somehow it completely inaccurately, there’s sort of a stigma there that relates
to those diseases. People are either afraid to ask for help, or they think maybe treatment
doesn’t work. That’s absolutely not true. These diseases can be successfully treated
just like any other disease, but not if people never get medical care.
Rob: So is the first step for the state just to recognize that it is a problem and there’s
something that we all should be doing? White: Absolutely. I think there’s the first
step like you’re saying is there’s a role for all of us. One is that we have to start
talking about these issues among our families the same way that if we had heart disease
that ran in our families, we would talk about it. And we need to talk about mental illness
and addiction. Not only do we need to talk about it there, but we need to talk about
in our schools. We need to help identify people at a much younger age instead of waiting until
the consequences. And what I mean by that is we don’t need to wait until someone is
getting in trouble at school, youth who appear to have acting out behavior, but what it really
is is an untreated mental illness or addiction issue. We don’t need to wait until our youth
drop out of high school or drop out of college because they’re struggling. We don’t need
to wait until we’ve got someone who’s become employed but is now struggling with mental
illness or addiction and is beginning not to show up at work and they end up losing
their job. We need to not wait until we end up with, ultimately where people are being,
ending up in the back of a police car, the inside of a jail cell or the inside of a prison
cell because they have an untreated disease as opposed to entering a medical facility.

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