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Mental Health

The State of Oklahoma’s Mental Health Care is Called into Question

— January 23, 2023

Civil rights probe looks into Oklahoma’s treatment of those with mental illness.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has instituted a civil rights investigation into the treatment of Oklahoma’s mentally ill adults by the Oklahoma City Police Department to determine if these individuals were discriminated against in violation of federal law.

One instance under investigation includes a boy remaining in the emergency room after attempting suicide because all mental health facilities for juveniles were filled to capacity. Another occurrence involved a former pastor telling a crisis center in Oklahoma City that he wanted to commit suicide, but the man was turned away from the facility because he slept with a sleep apnea device, which was forbidden in the facility. The former pastor committed suicide days later in the facility’s parking lot.

These are only a few of the 130 life-and-death instances in Oklahoma City where jail or fear of mental facilities deterred or made it impossible to receive community-based mental health help for oneself or a loved one.

The State of Oklahoma's Mental Health Care is Called into Question
Photo by Kindel Media from Pexels

According to Assistant General Kristen Clarke, “The ADA requires that people with disabilities live free from discrimination – that includes receiving services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. Second, we will determine whether Oklahoma City discriminates under the ADA in how it responds to 911 calls involving individuals with behavioral health disabilities. And third, we will determine whether, once on the scene of a behavioral health crisis, the Oklahoma City Police Department complies with the ADA.

The investigation into Oklahoma’s system is in line with similar efforts in other states to ensure that people suffering from mental health disabilities are not isolated while in need.

Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley released a statement stating, “We intend to cooperate with the USDOJ and look forward to working with them toward the goal of providing the safest and most effective ways of responding to these types of calls. The investigation will also look into whether the State has failed to establish community-based mental health services for those in need.

Throughout the state, the need for proper community-based mental health care facilities outweighs the number of people who can provide help. Whatever facilities are available are invariably overwhelmed and understaffed and have a long waiting list. Low-income Oklahomans are especially at risk due to limited insurance reimbursement. People living in rural areas usually cannot take time off from work to travel any distance for an appointment.

Encounters with police leave almost 40 percent of people with mental disabilities handcuffed with few options. Many end up in jail instead of an appropriate facility. The federal investigation will attempt to determine why the lack of community-based mental health services is keeping people with mental health difficulties in jail or psychiatric facilities. The fact is that placing people with mental challenges in institutions or jail is a violation of people’s rights that guarantees them the right to receive mental health care within the community.

One positive step in handling Oklahoma’s crisis has been to launch an emergency hotline for people in crisis. According to the hotline, 90 percent of calls are resolved with a call, while trained counselors and paramedics instead of police officers respond to the remaining 10 percent of calls. The police are brought in only if weapons are involved.


Oklahoma Watch: Barriers to mental health care surveyed amid federal investigation

Justice Department Launches Investigation of Oklahoma’s Mental Health Service System and Oklahoma City’s and Oklahoma Police Department’s Response to Mental Health Crises

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