Mental health and substance abuse are upfront issues that need to be addressed, starting with upfront conversations.
That was the central message of Terri White, commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, when she spoke at the State of Mental Health and Substance Abuse luncheon, presented by the Lawton Fort Sill Chamber of Commerce at Cameron University recently.
White squashed the stigma of the person with mental illness. “They look like you. They look like me. They are our friends, family and co-workers,” White said.
Mental illness can be compared to diabetes and heart disease in the sense that they are all diseases, according to White. Mental illness, then, can be explained as a disease of the brain.
“How many times have we said (to people with mental illness): ‘Why can’t you make yourself stop?’ “ White asked, explaining that a person with mental illness cannot simply stop the illness without help and treatment any more than a person with diabetes can order his or her body to make more insulin.
“The biggest public health issue is mental health,” according to White.
Only 1 out of 3 Oklahomans with mental illness or substance addiction have access to help, White said.
“We have to fix that,” White said.
White also discussed suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.
“Suicide is a preventable cause of death and we don’t talk about it,” she said.
“You can’t save a life if you aren’t asking the right questions,” White said. “The issue (of suicide) has a huge impact on the workplace. If you have someone at a workplace who dies by suicide, we don’t talk about it at all. We need to talk about it to show someone we care.”
White also discussed drug use, and according to her, the top drug of choice in Oklahoma is meth, which is a “serious problem that has risen significantly in the last few years.”
Repeated messages about drugs and addiction, such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” and the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” 1980s anti-drug campaigns, work, according to White. “In the early ‘90s, we stopped the conversation.”
White pointed out that “daily use of marijuana among 12th graders increased 205% from 1992 to 2018.”
“Just like there is a Big Tobacco, there is a Big Pot, which made a concerted effort to show marijuana was not harmful,” White said. “There is no scientific evidence that marijuana is medicine.”
Alcohol abuse is another issue facing Oklahomans, White said. “We are now seeing men in their 30s and 40s dying of cirrhosis of the liver” because of excessive and long-term drinking, according to White.
White advised everyone to “start young” to prevent drug and alcohol addiction. “Addiction (to substances) rarely starts at 37, 47, or 57.”
“If we can keep alcohol out of kid’s brains until age 21 or older, there is only a 10% chance of addiction,” White said. “We have to go back to the conversation of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse at a young age.”
“The No. 1 prediction of which kids will use (drugs or alcohol) is what their parents, grandparents or caregivers think,” White said. She encouraged everyone to start the conversation with kids early in their lives about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
Though the mental illness and substance abuse problem and lack of access to help is dire, it is not all “doom and gloom,” White explained. “There is hope. Recovery does happen and has for hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans.”