An ongoing series on the state of mental health and access to treatment in rural Oklahoma. The project is enabled by a grant from the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation.

TULSA – An annual Tulsa symposium on mental health this week brought home the reality of efforts to combat the problems of addiction and mental illness and distress: that the war must be waged on many fronts.

A last-minute change to the program illustrated the fact. The main theme of this year’s Zarrow Mental Health Symposium, which ran from Wednesday to Friday, was sharing and finding ways to eliminate chronic and veteran homelessness. But the fatal shooting on Sept. 16 of Terrence Crutcher, a 40-year-old black man, by a white Tulsa police officer prompted organizers to include the subject of police shootings in panel and other discussions during the 22nd symposium.

“It hit me – we have to address this in this symposium,” said Mike Brose, chief executive officer of Mental Health Association Oklahoma. He was planning for the event when he saw news of the shooting on CNN, and he and a national nonprofit organization, Community Solutions, proposed including the issue in the symposium. “It’s related, it’s relevant, it’s important,” Brose said.

The symposium remained an exploration of a wide range of critical issues, including finding ways to house the homeless, incarceration of the mentally ill and the effects of stress on the human body.

Ending Homelessness

In 2015, Tulsa organizations and government agencies, along with Community Solutions, initiated Zero 2016 Tulsa, part of a national program to end chronic and veteran homelessness.

Over the past 18 months, 78 Tulsans who were chronically homeless and 298 homeless veterans from Tulsa have been housed through the effort.

The symposium included discussions on methods and strategies to create supportive housing, identify barriers to obtaining housing for the homeless and how to build a sustainable structure to help serve the homeless.

Judy Kishner, a trustee of the Ann and Henry Zarrow Foundation, said the effort has been successful in reducing homelessness in Tulsa and many of the cities that have adopted the program.

“The people we’re serving are there in most cases because of bad luck,” Kishner said. “It’s important to remember that every one of people is someone’s son or daughter – in many cases, they’re brothers, sisters, parents. They deserve a chance to redeem their lives and get back to where they can live a safe, decent life.”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Dr. Robert Sapolsky, professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Devastating Stress

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, delivered a speech on the effects of long-term stress on the human body, including the mental and physical ailments it causes.

Although stress is important for survival situations, long-term stress can increase the risk of diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and infectious disease and disrupt neural networks in the brain. In general, the effects of chronic stress can be devastating.

But there are ways to help overcome the effects, Sapolsky said. Among them are having an outlet to relieve stress, having information that allows someone to predict or control the things that trigger stress, and having a strong support network.

“Science has finally proven friends are good for your health,” Sapolsky said. “If you have a choice in the matter, don’t be socially isolated.”

However, Sapolsky warned that the idea that “any hell can be turned into a heaven” by applying these approaches is dangerous. The context and setting in which one lives life is important, he said.

“That’s wonderful for middle-class neuroses,” Sapolsky said. “None of this stuff applies to the world of people who have no idea where they’re sleeping tonight, or have a terminal disease, or are refugees. None of this can make a dent in a world in which you are judged because of the demographic you belong to.”

That’s why it is important for mental health and social workers to help alleviate the inequities and factors that put individuals in those situations before the work on stress can succeed.

Police Shootings

On Thursday, the symposium hosted a panel to discuss law enforcement shootings.

Panel moderator Reggie Ivey, CEO of the Tulsa City-County Health Department, said both the Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office were invited to participate, but both declined.

Among panelists’ suggestions to improve police-community relations were increased police training in crisis intervention and de-escalation, revival of community policing, and greater immersion by police in communities and cultures.

The panel included Richard Cho, behavioral health director of Council of State Governments Justice Center; Rev. Gerald Davis, a Tulsa minister; Joe Hight, former managing editor of The Oklahoman; Marq Lewis, president and founder of We the People Oklahoma; and Valerie Thompson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Oklahoma City.

David said that during the 1980s, community policing helped bridge the gap between black Tulsans and police, but after the effort ended, that gap began to widen again.

“What some police officers call community policing is actually community relations. They’re two different things,” Davis said. “Community policing has a set of expectations, a body of knowledge and evidence for what you can put into practice.”

Davis said part of holding police accountable by establishing a citizen review board that has subpoena power.

Cho said there has been a paradigm shift in the way law enforcement agencies across the country approach policing.

“There’s been a big culture shift in law enforcement, from thinking of yourself as a guardian to thinking of yourself as a warrior,” Cho said.

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