COMMENTARY – One of the Most Critical Issues Facing our State

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma boasts a lot of wonderful things to be proud of. We are known for our wonderful country music with many Grammy and CMA award winners. We are known for our amazing NBA team. We are Oklahoma strong when tragedy strikes during tornado season. 
And…we are No. 2 in mental illness and 49th in funding. Ouch. That is a sad commentary for such a great state known for its big heart. 
With more than 900,000 Oklahomans suffering with a brain disorder, treating mental illness is the most critical issue facing our state. Why? Because the immense suffering of untreated brain disorders not only affects those who suffer, they affect families, the community and the state. 
Eighty-five percent of mentally ill individuals are unemployed. Mental illness increases the numbers in our jails and prisons. Fifty percent or more of individuals walking through the doors of the county jail on any given day are there because of mental health related crimes. And we wonder why our jails are at 120 percent capacity. Up to 67 percent of those in long term incarceration suffer with a mental illness. Have we traded hospital beds for prison beds? 

I recently spoke to a lawyer who works with death row inmates. She told me that although there are definitely evil people who commit heinous crimes with no remorse, the majority of the clients she sees and represents end up on death row because of untreated mental illness. Imagine the heartache that could have been saved if those inmates had gotten help early on, not to mention the immense economic savings for the state.
Mental illness is often present in situations of domestic abuse and foster care. It is a well-established fact that drug abuse is very high among those who suffer with a brain disorder. Why is that? Because when people can’t get help for their illness, the chemical imbalance in their brain screams for help and relief. How many of us have sore muscles after a workout and grab ibuprofen because we don’t want to hurt? Or take medication for a migraine so we can get back to our jobs and responsibilities. No one wants to hurt.
By now many of you know the story of the horrific tragedy that befell my family last August, and the death of my husband, Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, at the hands of our mentally ill son who suffers with paranoid schizophrenia. Mark and I tried for years to help our son, and Mark became outspoken in recent years about the need to address mental illness in our state.

Oklahoma has many needs such as education, roads and bridges. But if Oklahomans aren’t well, they won’t be traveling those roads and bridges to get to school. Isn’t it time to invest in our citizens who are suffering and crying out for help? Investing in mental health services and changing laws will save lives and save millions of dollars for our state. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

NOTE: Cathy Costello is a mental health advocate and widow of the late Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello who was slain by his son. David Slane is a criminal defense attorney who has practiced law in Oklahoma the past 20 years. Slane has handled numerous cases involving defendants with mental health issues.