Millions on Prisons, a pittance for mental health

To The Editor:
As the old Fram oil filter commercial goes, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” That, my friends, is the scenario we find ourselves in with the mental health issue in Oklahoma.

This issue is not as sexy as, say, the Presidential race, but it is one that needs to be addressed. I have heard some at the State Capitol question whether one of government’s core functions is to even screen and treat Oklahoman’s who are afflicted with some type of mental illness.

Remember: It has been widely reported that 23-25% of all Oklahoman’s have some type of treatable mental illness. Our Corrections Department has long been the main filtering device for far too many mental health cases. Our prison’s populations have more than 50% on psychogenic drugs. Only in Oklahoma would we lose a statewide elected official, Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, to a mental health murder by his own child – and then casually kick 73,000 people off the mental health rolls in the same 12-month period, and with very little public outcry.

I realize this is not a top-five electable issue, but give me a break, we need to redevelop some compassion for our fellow man, or do we wait until it strikes our own family.

I remember reading Senator Stipe’s book, “A Gathering of Heroes,” which, interestingly enough, was not about him but rather about Dr. E. T. Dunlap, an education pioneer; Rev. Wade Watts, an early civil rights pioneer; and Dr. Hayden Donahue, a pioneer who brought Oklahoma out of the dark ages as far as mental health treatment is concerned.

At the time Dr. Donahue took over the State Department of Mental Health, patients were being handcuffed to their beds. We are not doing that any longer; drugs have replaced handcuffs, but unfortunately most of those facilities have closed down because the Legislature decided to “get tough on crime.” The average stay at the “snake pit” at Central State Hospital in 1958 was 8-10 years. Twenty years later the average stay is 25 days.

So instead of spending $2,500 to treat mental illness, our prison system takes care of them for $21,000 per year. Hence, we are spending our money on corrections, and shall I bring up the percentage that we spend on for-profit private prisons? No one said the Legislature is made up of 149 brain surgeons! Being tough on crime we’ve wasted money that should have gone to educate our children.

Consider the irony here: At the same time Dr. Donahue was taking over the task of cleaning up the “snake pit” at Central State Hospital in 1953, the State of Oklahoma was having a grand opening of the Turner Turnpike. Now during the same month we are reporting that we are going backward on funding of mental health and cutting 73,000 off mental health care, Governor Fallin announces that the state wants to borrow 900 million more dollars for new turnpikes in the metro area.
Sincerely, Brian Renegar, DVM

Note: Brian Renegar, a Democrat from McAlester, represents House District 17 at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

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