Lack of funding and access to services and lack of political will have prevented many Oklahomans with mental illness and addiction problems from getting the help they need, leaders in the field told an Oklahoma City audience Tuesday night.
Steven Buck, deputy commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and Michael Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, fielded questions at an “Oklahoma Watch-Out” forum, sponsored by Oklahoma Watch at Kamps 1910 Café. About 50 attended.
Buck and Brose spoke about a wide range of mental-health topics, including funding, early intervention, prison inmates with mental illness, a lack of affordable providers, and an innovative program in San Antonio that diverts mentally ill people from the criminal justice system into treatment.
When the topic of competing needs for state funding came up, Buck said a strong case to be made for mental health is that it is intertwined closely with other state-funded services, such as education, child welfare, economic development and the criminal justice system.
Brose said that how government funds are used is as important as how much is provided. He said there has been a lot of “downstream” investment in dealing with mental illness, such as spending on incarceration, but more “upstream,” or preventative, investment is needed.
“It’s not always that we need a new dollar. We’ve got to look hard and long at how we spend the dollar we have. We’re back-loaded, we’re downstream. We’ve got to move upstream,” Brose said. “At the end of the day, it’s about investment, it’s about political leadership to say, ‘Enough is enough and we’re going to take this thing on because we know how to do it.’”
For those in the criminal justice system, such as recently released prisoners, it is important to make sure that those individuals get treatment and services that not only help them transition back into society, but address underlying substance abuse or mental health issues, Buck said.
“For those who come back out, we have an obligation to make sure those services are there to keep them from recidivating and going back into the system,” Buck said.
Brose said he recently spoke with a San Antonio police officer involved in the city’s efforts to divert those with mental illness and addiction problems. The officer told him that the program has put strain on the treatment and mental health system.
“That’s where we need to put more pressure, so it will drive more funding towards that, not the other way around,” Brose said. “Let’s put the pressure there and off the criminal justice system.”
Several members of the audience brought up last year’s incident in which a man ran his car into the Ten Commandments monument at the State Capitol. Brose said this proved to be an example of how law enforcement and the mental health community can work together to ensure better outcomes for people. The man, who was suffering from mental illness, was diverted into treatment and is now back in his community, Brose said.
“There was enormous communication and enormous effort,” Brose said. “The reason why we were able to get that outcome is because everybody pitched in and it had a lot of publicity. I think we can get that outcome more often than what we do.”
Buck said he believes great strides have been made in lessening the stigma against mental illness that often prevents people from seeking treatment. But more work needs to be done, he said.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re becoming more comfortable talking about these circumstances and illnesses than we were two short decades ago,” Buck said.
Brose said his organization employs several former offenders, not purely out of kindness, but because they are good workers.
“I hire them because they’re good employees,” Brose said. “All of us in this room deserve grace and mercy, right? We’ve all made mistakes and people deserve a chance to change.”
However, getting access to nearby mental health and substance abuse services can often be tricky for individuals, Buck said.
“You will find programs of excellence all over the state that truly represent the best in mental health and addiction delivery,” Buck said. “The trouble is, you cannot find them all in one community.”
The forum was part of a year-long Oklahoma Watch project entitled, “Troubled State: A Series on Mental Health in Oklahoma,” which is funded in part with grants from the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation and Zarrow Families Foundation.