Mental Health Care in Oklahoma Takes Another Hit

Last year, our blog presented a series of articles exploring the relationship between mental illness and the criminal justice system, and how using jails and prisons as de facto mental health care facilities has created a crisis. For a quick recap of that series, view our infographic.

Fast-forward nearly 18 months, and the situation in Oklahoma has not only failed to see improvement, it is likely to worsen in the coming months and years with the announcement of a serious budget failure in the state.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) says that each of the state's facilities are at capacity, and the state is operating with a $20 million deficit . . . up to $60 million when you take into account the money lost when the state lost its federal Medicaid match. To add insult to injury, the agency had to cut an additional $14 million from its budget this month.

So how do you "trim" $14 million? By cutting services to those who need them.

According to ODMHSAS Commissioner Terri White, "We are already at a crisis point in our mental health and substance abuse system."

In order to determine who gets treatment and who is denied services, the agency must "triage" those in need of mental health services, providing services and treatment to the most acutely ill while denying services to those who may be somewhat more functional.

As a result of these cuts, police are seeing an increase in the number of mental health calls, and when they transport people to the state's facilities, they are told that the beds are full, and they will have to transport the patient to a facility a hundred miles away or more. 

Read about the issues of relying on law enforcement to transport mentally ill people to health care facilities.

Now, despite this budget failure, the Oklahoma legislature did some good things for criminal justice reform--including the expansion of drug courts, a jail diversion program for people with substance abuse issues. Drug courts often allow nonviolent offenders to get rehabilitation rather than jail or prison, allowing them to break a cycle of crime and incarceration.

The ODMHSAS has prioritized the drug court program, but with such a strain on the agency's budget, it will be difficult to effectively manage, prioritize, and provide services to Oklahomans who need them.

Image credit: Alachua County

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