Oklahoma mental health advocates called to act

After being named CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma a few months ago, Terri White said she looked forward to doing more advocacy work than was possible in her job as head of the state’s mental health agency. Recent remarks offer a sign of what that will look like.

At the Zarrow Mental Health Symposium, White urged participants not to let “your life’s work become just another set of meaningless talking points without action.”

“We can no longer stand by as policies or policymakers claim to prioritize the well-being of Oklahomans and then allow people in need to be denied or have limited access to treatment and affordable housing,” said White, who spent 13 years as commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“We can no longer allow them to treat access to health care like it’s not a basic human right,” she said.

And, White said, mental health professionals cannot let officials “continue to try and punish the addiction, homelessness or mental illness out of people who belong in treatment and housing as opposed to the back of a police car, the inside of a jail cell or the inside of a prison cell.”

At the state agency, White wrestled with the Legislature over funding to deal with Oklahoma’s mental health and substance abuse problems — the state’s rates of adults with serious mental illness is one of the nation’s highest. She championed mental health and drug courts, which have proven successful in keeping thousands of offenders out of prison, and many other programs.

At the symposium, she noted the mental health toll imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic — one state organization projected in April that more than 18,000 Oklahomans could attempt suicide during the following 12 months. White said more than 370 Oklahomans will die from suicide and drug overdoses resulting from economic struggles, and an estimated 92,000 will have suicidal thoughts.

Thus, she said, mental health advocates must support mental health insurance parity and a full funding of Medicaid expansion to help minimize new addiction, trauma and deaths related to behavioral health.

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