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State Ranks High In Mental Illness Rate

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There’s always a lot of brief media attention when the latest report comes up documenting the unbelievably high rate of mental illness here in Oklahoma, but there’s never much discussion over why that is the case.

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) issued a report recently that showed Oklahoma ranked second in the nation in both serious mental illness and all mental illness, ranking just behind West Virginia and Utah, respectively.

That means that 5.24 percent of Oklahomans 18 or older suffer from such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia and severe depression while a whopping 21.88 of Oklahomans 18 or older suffer from what some might consider less debilitating forms of mental illness, such as low-grade or temporary depression. The data is from the years 2011 and 2012.

The impact of mental illness on the quality of life here, whether one suffers from symptoms or not, cannot be underplayed. It can raise the crime rate, lower work productivity and wreak havoc in families.

So why do Oklahomans suffer from so much mental illness?

One thing is sure. The state spends little public money in prevention, programs and maintaining mental health facilities, at least compared to the national average. This has a snowball effect because untreated mental illness can escalate into deeper problems. A low-grade depression, for example, could turn into clinical depression that is more difficult to treat.

But I would like to posit some other reasons for the high rate of mental illness here, many of which can be ascribed to the state’s particular “DNA”:

Lack of awareness. I would argue that many Oklahomans don’t even accept some forms of mental illness as valid and embrace a “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” mentality. Obviously, most people can recognize when someone is completely delusional in a real medical sense, but what about people who are simply extremely sad or anxious? Should they just get over it? Those sad or anxious people can face, then, a bias and a feeling that they’re abnormal, which can accelerate their conditions. We simply must get over the stigma of mental illness.

Bias against education. I have long held that there remains among many Oklahomans a bias and distrust of education. This can be seen from the inadequate funding for schools in the state to legislative bills that attack the scientific principle. What this does is inhibit basic awareness of psychological problems on individual and cultural levels.

Poverty. Oklahoma has a long history of being an impoverished state with poverty rates lower than the national average. What this means is that some people here tend to self-medicate or tough it out without treatment, if they can even find treatment, which leads to the next reason.

Poor medical access. The lack of medical access in Oklahoma has been a long-term dilemma, especially when it comes to mental health. The state needs more psychiatric and substance abuse facilities. It needs more outpatient facilities. This would be an investment that could really enhance the quality of life here.

The intangibles. I have argued in the past that Oklahomans, and I realize I’m generalizing, tend to tough things out in their lives. But there are so many aspects of life here that can contribute to mental illness, such as the severe weather, living in urban and rural blight, religious oppression and the lack of walking spaces within Oklahoma City’s massive urban sprawl. Physical exercise can help improve one’s basic outlook on life. Mental illness is an individual condition, of course, but one’s cultural and geographical milieu is always a factor in terms of mood and philosophy.

All this is not to say that Oklahoma is necessarily a bad place to live. For some people, obviously, it’s a wonderful place. But studies like this one point to real foundational problems in the state. It will take a holistic approach to solve it, but improving awareness and investing in mental health facilities and programs is a basic step in the right direction.

Pension Paranoia

Oklahoma State Capitol

I’m glad that at least one statewide Republican leader has publicly asked for an actuarial study to determine the specific financial impact of a proposed and radical change to one state pension plan.

Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, writing in The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com, argues, “Any changes to the pension systems must be verified by an actuarial study to provide the impact those changes will have to the fiscal stability of the plan. It only makes sense to give the pension experts, CPAs and actuaries a chance to fix this problem. Working with these experts, legislators would be able to make the necessary, tough, informed decisions to find an actuarially sound solution.”

Jones’ point makes perfect sense, but some Republican leaders, such as Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller and Gov. Mary Fallin, both Republicans, are simply relying on reductionist rhetoric to move some new state employees into 401(k)-styled pensions without defined benefit payments and thereby putting one pension plan at risk.

Senate Bill 2120 and House Bill 2630 would require that new state employees under the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) go into a new 401(k)-styled plan. One major question that hasn’t been addressed fully by Miller and Fallin, according to some opponents of their plan, is how the old plan would still remain solvent without new participants.

Instead, we only hear dire cries of a pension crisis from them and the editorial board of The Oklahoman and how the new plan will be portable if employees leave their jobs. (Of course, that wonderful portability has nothing to do with how well the 401(k)-styled plan performs.) While it’s true that all of the state’s pensions face an $11 billion liability that liability has been reduced by some $5 billion just in recent years, and it will be reduced even more if state leaders simply provided appropriate funding and made wise financial decisions.

Jones, of course, who writes that the pension problems were created by “irresponsible, reckless and self-serving actions by the Legislature,” isn’t the only one calling for a financial study of the proposed change. David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, has been raising this concern for months. How can you make such a major change within a financial system without calculating the impact in specific dollars? As state treasurer, Miller, in particular, should get behind conducting such a study.

Blatt has also pointed out that the change would harm the pension plan for current employees. He writes:

. . .the proposal to close off the system for new employees and shift these workers to defined contribution plans risks weakening OPERS and increasing the system’s unfunded liabilities. The reason is that pension plans depend heavily on investment earnings to grow their assets so as to be able to meet their obligations. As long as plans remain open to new employees, investment managers can invest for the longer-term because they have a mix of young, mid-career and retired workers.

In other words, if there’s less money to invest, there’s going to be smaller returns. Think of employees, in particular, who have been hired in the last ten years or so and are under the old plan. Think of employees hired under OPERS this year. Will the lack of new participants create a huge liability? Will political leaders, then, declare yet another emergency?

It becomes clear when viewed from a larger perspective that Republicans here and in other states simply want to reduce retirement benefits for government employees. They want to force a crisis. Of course, most Republicans won’t address the issue with that basic language.

Here’s the GOP game plan at the state level here and elsewhere: Cut taxes for rich people, give huge tax breaks to corporations, keep wages stagnant for rank-and-file state workers and cut their benefits, making them financially insecure.

The only thing that will stop the execution of that plan is if people stand up, voice their concerns and vote differently. But the neoliberalism (i.e., “free market” principles) model pits people against one another. If I don’t have guaranteed retirement benefits then why should you have them? The right-wing emphasizes the point. Consequently, no one gets decent retirement benefits. Meanwhile, the wealthiest top 1 percent snicker away from above.

The growing income inequality in this country is the only thing that’s not sustainable, not one pension program in one relatively small state.

Ed Shadid For OKC Mayor

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It’s no secret that I hope Oklahoma City voters elect Ed Shadid as their mayor this coming Tuesday.

Shadid, a local physician, has innovative ideas about rejuvenating the city through a focus on helping the city’s diverse neighborhoods thrive, creating more walkable spaces, expanding public transportation and fighting crime by hiring more police officers.

As the Ward 2 Oklahoma City councilor, he has also proven himself to be a tenacious watchdog of taxpayer money through his questioning of MAPS 3 funds and projects.

He has attracted a huge mass of passionate followers who show up by the hundreds when he conducts public forums on issues such as urban sprawl. As a long-time area resident, journalist and college professor, I have never seen this much direct citizen participation in city issues, which Shadid has pretty much solely generated and cultivated.

Shadid has also received the endorsements of a wide range of organizations and people, from the local Fraternal Order of Police to the city’s firefighters’ union to local journalist Patrick McGuigan, who writes in the City Sentinel, “Shadid aims to establish a more inclusive government.” Republican Bob Dani, who leads the conservative High Noon Club and also endorses Shadid, writes in the Oklahoma Gazette, “I support candidates who are committed to fiscal responsibility.” Shauna Lawyer Struby, a progressive involved in sustainable living and health issues, also writes in the Oklahoma Gazette, “Shadid sets the standard for accessibility in public service by actively engaging with his constituents, meeting with people from all walks of life.”

Shadid’s campaign has generated intense interest among such diverse media outlets as The Lost Ogle, which conducted interviews with him and his main opponent Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, and News 9 and the Oklahoma Gazette, which worked together in polling the race. The Red Dirt Report, a local media site, has relentlessly covered the race, often focusing on Cornett’s refusal to debate.

All this media energy is exciting and bodes well for Oklahoma City.

I’ve talked with Shadid a few times since 2011. He has a subtle and endearing charisma. He is honest about himself personally and his ideas. As someone who has written about Oklahoma politics since 1982, I’ve never encountered a politician with such sincerity and clarity. Not only has he never tried to hide his long-time recovery from drug addiction, he has repeatedly used his story to help others and local drug-treatment systems and efforts. For this he should be lauded; instead The Oklahoman vilified him by sanctimoniously demanding the release of decade-old divorce records, calling attention to his past.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that Shadid has become a major symbol for many of us who have been attacked relentlessly here for simply trying to get our voices heard.

I have to agree with McGuigan that the city needs “a fresh voice.” Cornett, who has done some good things as mayor, has served now for 10 years. He has been mayor during a time of a downtown renaissance that has enriched some of the city’s powerful elites at the overall expense of the city’s neighborhoods. His refusal to debate Shadid and the other two mayoral candidates only reinforces the idea that he will continue in this direction as long as he remains the city’s top leader.

Urban blight still haunts the city, which needs more police officers, more walkable spaces and better public transportation. These issues, which Shadid has raised in his campaign, may not be as immediately exciting as a Kevin Durant slam dunk, but at the end of the day they are extremely important to our quality of life.

Shadid would be an outstanding, innovative mayor for all Oklahoma City residents.

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