OKLAHOMA CITY – One in five Oklahomans struggles with mental illness, about three-quarters of a million of your friends and neighbors.
Despite a serious need for treatment in our state, Oklahoma seems to be coming up short year after year when it comes to funding early intervention mental health services for those who are suffering.
Last summer, Brandi Shearer came close to death. She nearly lost her life when her teenage daughter, Kari, tried to kill her at their home in rural Logan County.
“She was outrunning me,” Shearer remembers. “Grabbing me by the back of my hair. She was yelling, ‘I want to kill you,’ and just began to beat me, punch me, hit me. She grabbed the back of my head and began to beat my head against the table. If she’d had a weapon this would be a very sad story because I don’t think I would be here. I don’t.”
Two years ago, Kari Shearer was diagnosed with epilepsy, depression, insomnia, and then explosive rage disorder.
Kari has been in and out of mental health treatment centers in Oklahoma and Texas trying to control her illness. The trouble is, each time she graduates from the program and goes home, the rage comes back worse.
“The state of Oklahoma has placed a loaded gun in my hand, and they’ve said, ‘You can pull the trigger at you and your other children by bringing Kari back into the home, or you can pull it at your daughter by placing her on the street knowing that bad things will happen to her. But either way, you’ve got to pull the trigger.’ I can’t do it,” Brandi Shearer said.
Brandi’s daughter, Kari, is developmentally delayed, and crippled by the explosive rage disorder. Mental health experts call it a “dual-diagnosis,” and there are many Oklahomans just like Kari.
“I don’t know what got into my head. Maybe it was the devil telling me lies about my parents? Maybe it was?” said Kari. “Every time I think about it, it makes me want to wish that I could take it all back,” Kari said. “Not only did I hurt them, but I hurt myself.”
There are dozens of specialized facilities for Oklahomans like Kari Shearer, but most refused to take her because her violence is a danger to other patients.
In fact, one Oklahoma City hospital told the family a homeless shelter was the best option for Kari.
“She can’t live out in the world, and she can no longer live in our home because of the danger she poses,” said Brandi Shearer. “So somebody needs to meet me right here where I’m at with her in reality and give me some options.”
In Oklahoma, we are funded 46th in the nation for mental health, despite having the third-highest rate of mental illness. Oklahoma spends $53.05 per capita; the national average is $120.56 per capita.
Money is at the heart of this issue. There is not enough to treat all the Oklahomans who struggle.
“Oklahomans’ brains are more important than asphalt,” said Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner, Terri White. “So we’ve got to decide if we’re going to invest in our brains in the same way we have made a multi-year commitment to invest in our infrastructure for our roads and bridges.”
Commissioner White admits half of the people who get treatment in Oklahoma are already in crisis, and funneled into the system though the back of a police car.
Those patients end up at a crisis center, which is an expensive and avoidable way to treat mental illness.
“What happens when you don’t get care for a disease? It gets worse until you become eligible because now you’re in crisis,” White said. “It’s a horrible way to handle health care.”
We know early intervention is a more affordable and more effective way to treat patients. But most state-funded early intervention programs have been stripped from the budget.
“Ultimately, until we invest in early intervention and prevention, we’ll never be able to change the expenses that occur down the road,” said NorthCare C.O.O., Clark Grothe.
According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAIMI), Oklahomans who can afford it travel out of state to seek help.
“This is why families move out of Oklahoma,” said NAMI Executive Director, Traci Cook. “This is why we have children in in-patient facilities and getting services in other states around Oklahoma every single day.”
Kari Shearer’s family can’t afford to leave. They eventually stumbled into help for her at a residential facility in Del City. For Kari, it is a temporary solution.
“This is an Oklahoma problem. There are many many people like Kari who are struggling and are in her position,” said Brandi Shearer. “Kari deserves a good life. She deserves to have dreams and plans, and so I’m not going to quit fighting until I find that. I will not stop fighting for her.”
It has been two months since Kari’s last incident of violence. Her family is hopeful she can go six months and move to a facility with a program targeted toward young people.
If you or someone you love needs mental health help, call the Oklahoma Mental Illness Hotline at 800.985.5990.