The Norman Transcript

September 27, 2013

Commissioner: Mental illness treatment and substance abuse deterrent should be priority

By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, encouraged parents to keep being uncool in the eyes of their children, despite how hard such a task could be. Parents are the No. 1 influence when it comes to a child’s decision about alcohol, White said.

Parents Helping Parents welcomed White as their guest speaker and continued their mission to offer hope to other parents through resources, education and shared experience during a meeting Thursday night. White discussed the state of addiction and mental illness in Oklahoma and the challenges the department of mental health, parents and those afflicted with mental abuse or addiction face.

To begin her lecture, White admitted a secret — not everything is known about addiction or mental illness; not everything is known about the brain.

White said that this can make tackling addiction and mental illness frustrating to those suffering from addiction or mental abuse or those like parents who struggle with a child suffering from addiction or mental abuse.

Parents Helping Parents’ attendees nodded in agreement and said before coming to the organization, they felt isolated, ashamed or alone.

Addiction and mental illness are real medical conditions. White said most people don’t know this or don’t understand that even in the case of addiction, although it may be someone’s initial choice to use, drug abuse can change to dependency void of choice.

White said that such dependency is more likely to develop in people at a younger age.

“Youth at age 15 who drink are six times more likely to develop an addiction compared to those who wait to 21 to drink,” White said.

Alcohol can temporarily or permanently impede brain development. And unfortunately, most people take their first drink at the age of 12 in Oklahoma, White said. Additionally, binge drinking is more common now than it was 20 years ago.

“Seventy-four percent of 12th graders have said they (drank) alcohol,” White said, encouraging attendees to seriously think about discussions of allowing alcohol in supermarkets.

“The more outlets, the more access, the more youths use,” she said.

In Norman, prescription drugs are the drug of choice. Norman rates No. 1 for all age groups in misuse of prescription drugs.

White said such misuse is driven by easy access. Kids can grab pills out of their parent’s medicine cabinet, and they have the misperception that it’s safer because it is medicine.

Despite the challenges of fighting addiction and mental illness, White said the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse helps people. The department of mental health reunites families, she said.

“We can’t loose sight of that when we’re in the middle of our own struggles,” White said.

Individuals should care about addiction and mental illness because of the drastic affect they have on an Oklahoman’s life span, White said. The average age of death for someone with mental health and substance abuse problems is 40 compared to the general population of Oklahoma, which is about 72.

“If we don’t (care), then we’ll lose are loved ones about 30 years earlier than we should,” White said.

Melissa Hearn, of Norman, said she was happy White didn’t sugarcoat anything and that while the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse may be doing what it could, it seemed mental illness has been abandoned nationally.

“It seems we need a systematic change,” Hearn said.

When asked how the community could help, White responded by saying addiction and mental health have not been a priority for the legislature. Also, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse had been suffering from large budget cuts over the past three years.

“Call your legislature. Let them know that it is a priority to you,” White said.

Praising Parents Helping Parents attendees, White said she understood that adults wrestle with the issue of how to talk to their kids about alcohol and drugs and how to set limits.

“You are paving the way for other parents and helping them through the struggle,” she said.

For more information about Parents Helping Parents, contact the Norman chapter at 278-1221 or visit