Avedis Health Week features speaker Terri White

Vicky O. Misa
The Shawnee News-Star
This week Terri White, executive director, Mental Health Association of Oklahoma manager, is shown speaking at an Avedis Foundation Speaker Series during Health Week.

On Tuesday morning, as part of the Avedis Foundation's Health Week schedule, residents gathered at Life Church for a Speaker Series event featuring a lecture from Mental Health Association of Oklahoma CEO Terri White, who addressed a difficult and often avoided topic in society — mental health.

Being hit with the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions in the past year, mental illness has become a point of even greater concern than before, she said, as more and more people struggle to cope with increased anxiety, isolation and depression.

Residents filed into Life Church just before Terri White, executive director, Mental Health Association of Oklahoma manager, was set to address residents as this week's featured lecturer in the 2021 Avedis Speaker Series.

White, describing mental illness as being similar to diabetes, said mental illness is unfortunately surrounded by a stigma that is hard to shake.

Like diabetes, she said, those with mental illness are dealing with chemicals that aren't functioning as they are supposed to — only in the brain as opposed to the pancreas.

It should be addressed and treated like other physical ailments and diseases, she said, instead of being ignored or looked upon with shame.

Oklahoma consistently has among the highest rates nationally for mental illness and substance abuse.

Between 700,000 and 900,000 adult Oklahomans are in need of services for diseases of the brain (about 600,000 reporting mental illness and 300,000 reporting alcohol or illicit drug dependence/abuse), she said.

“Only one in three are accessing the medical services they need,” she said.

She said she doesn't know of any other health crisis that approaches the ill with handcuffs, putting them in the back of a police car.

She said studies have disproven a misconception that those who are mentally ill are crazy or dangerous.

“They are actually more prone to be victims than perpetrators,” she said.

Changing the culture of mental health is going to take some work.

“We have to have more open dialogue about mental health,” she said.

According to her biography at mhaok.org, White served as commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) from May 2007 until February 2020.

Audrey Seeliger, with the Avedis Foundation, goes over details with Terri White, executive director, Mental Health Association of Oklahoma manager, just before White is set to address residents as this week's featured lecturer in the 2021 Avedis Speaker Series.

As commissioner, White served as CEO for one of Oklahoma’s largest state agencies, orchestrating an annual operating budget of more than $430 million and leading a workforce of approximately 1,800, and responsible for a multi-faceted statewide medical system providing treatment, housing, prevention, early intervention, treatment system certification programs and rule-making, data collection and analysis, along with oversight and delivery of the state’s behavioral health Medicaid program. In addition to overseeing state-run facilities, the agency also contracted with more than 300 private and non-profit mental health and substance abuse organizations across the state.

Mental health and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand, she said.

“Often, those who suffer in silence eventually end up in crisis,” she said.

Ranked eighth in the nation, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Oklahomans between the ages of 10 and 24, White said.

She said MHAOK offers suicide prevention training, called Question. Persuade. Refer (QPR), that teaches participants how to recognize early warning signs and explains how to intervene on behalf of someone with thoughts of suicide or who is in a crisis. To schedule a QPR, call (405) 940-3700 or email info@mhaok.org.

Also, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network operates 24/7 through a toll-free hotline at 1-800-273-8255. White said dialing 2-1-1 also will direct callers to that hotline.

Also, free and confidential mental health screenings are available online at mhaok.org.

This week Terri White, executive director, Mental Health Association of Oklahoma manager, is shown speaking at an Avedis Foundation Speaker Series during Health Week.

Some local resources that offer services for treating mental illness include:

• Citizen Potawatomi Nation Health Clinic: Behavioral Health Services, at potawatomi.org/services/health/behavioral-health; (405) 214-5101

• CREOKS Mental Health Services, at creoks.org; (405) 275-1844

• Gateway to Prevention and Recovery, at gatewaytoprevention.org; (405) 273-1170

• Project SAFE, at projectsafeok.com; 1-800-821-9953

• Red Rock Behavioral Health Services, at red-rock.com; (405) 987-7625

• Youth and Family Resource Center, at yfrcshawnee.org; (405) 275-3340

For story ideas, questions or concerns, reporter Vicky O. Misa can be reached at vicky.misa@news-star.com.