The state of mental health in Oklahoma was the subject of the Tulsa World’s latest Let’s Talk community forum on Thursday.
The event, held in the University of Tulsa Student Union’s Great Hall, featured a panel of experts and special guests discussing topics related to the mental health outlook in Oklahoma, including progress, reform, funding and current trends.
The panelists included TU President Gerard Clancy, who is a psychiatrist; Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; and Dr. Martin Paulus, scientific director and president of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research.
White gave an overview of where the state stands mental health-wise.
“We still have some staggering statistics,” she said, adding that Oklahoma continues to rank at the bottom nationally in mental health funding.
But at the same time, there are promising stats, she said. The state ranks in the top six for outcomes for people who enter mental health treatment.
“The good news, while we have a ways to go, is we’re heading in the right direction,” White said. “The one thing that stands in our way is all of us coming together to put the resources into this issue.”
Paulus talked about Laureate’s ongoing work, using basic brain science to develop treatments for mental illness.
He gave an overview of the now 10-year-old institution’s current projects and studies, including its participation in a national study that looks at screen media activity’s relationship to youth mental health issues.
Findings are “very preliminary,” he said, but so far have been “surprising,” indicating that kids who use more social media perform better on cognitive tests and in other areas.
Paulus added that he’s excited about another recent development at Laureate: “We are now able to isolate little bubbles in the blood stream that are from the brain.”
By looking at molecules from the bubbles, “it’s the first time we can look into the brain without going into the brain. This is very exciting.”
Participating as special guests at the event were Oklahoma’s first lady, Sarah Stitt, and Michael Brose, chief empowerment officer of Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
Stitt said she knew from the time her husband decided to run for governor that mental health would be her focus as first lady.
“Whether you have means or not, it is a crisis,” she said.
Committed “to being a tireless advocate for mental health,” Stitt added that she particularly wants to address the stigma associated with mental illness.
“That stigma still exists in Oklahoma. … In my home growing up it was a silent issue. You didn’t talk about it because of the stigma.”
Stitt said both her parents had severe mental illness.
“I didn’t know any different as a child. I thought every family operated that way,” she said.
The event was moderated by Wayne Greene, Tulsa World editorial pages editor.
Greene mentioned the “oft-quoted statistic” that one in five people in Oklahoma have some kind of mental illness. He added that “the other four out of five are having to deal with it, too. It’s your brother, your parents, your spouse. It touches all of us.”
About 200 attended the event, which also included a number of mental health-related organizations providing information about their services.