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Inside Oklahoma’s mental health crisis centers

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
July 8, 2013

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The following story was written by KOSU’s Quinton Chandler.

When a person is in mental crisis there are temporary safe havens called crisis centers where they can go cool off and get help. Oklahoma has about 9 public crisis centers and they fill up repeatedly. When they’re out of room, those who can’t get in either don’t get helped or they’re driven to another city…

“I didn’t like it. It was a strict thing, lock down, until I showed that I was not going to hurt myself or anybody else, so it served its purpose.”

Meet Mitchell, he’s a black man dressed casually in clean jeans and a t-shirt, with thin framed glasses. At first glance you wouldn’t guess that he’s homeless. I only knew better because we met inside a Salvation Army kitchen in Downtown Tulsa. He’s an advocate for mental health … with his own personal experience.

When I asked what happened:

“Mental crisis…. I just lost it. I just lost it and that’s where I ended up.”


“Crises run the whole spectrum. From folks that are just anxious about something to folks that are completely psychotic. And by psychotic I mean they’re out of touch with reality.”

Robert Nash, a former Captain with the Oklahoma City Police Department, led the Crisis Intervention Team. It’s their job to respond to mental crises and take people into protective custody if they need it.

In a perfect world….When someone… loses it… they go to a crisis center, either voluntarily or with a police escort, they get checked out and they’ll either be treated as an outpatient:

“They’ll see the doctor right away. They can have medications prescribed to them they can have counseling.”

Or they’re given a bed.

“They stay up to five days. Sometimes less some times more. We treat those symptoms make sure that we get them under control and then we hook them up with treatment on an outpatient basis.”

Carrie Slatten-Hodges is with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. They oversee the state’s public crisis centers. Here’s Nash again and this time with a dose of reality.

“Frequently when we get towards the end of the week we find ourselves trying to go to the crisis center here in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. It’s even worse in Tulsa and there’s no beds for the patients.”

“Here in Oklahoma City we’ll try to find a bed in one of the private hospitals as an alternative to having to transport the patient halfway across the state.”

Basically he’s talking about overcrowding and it’s gotten worse year after year. Mitchell once took a handcuffed ride in the back of a van from Tulsa all the way out to Fort Supply on the edge of the panhandle.

“I didn’t feel like I was treated like a criminal and I was glad that they locked the doors so I wouldn’t flip out and jump out of the vehicle going down the highway.”

“It was slightly discomforting but it was just a long ride. A long boring handcuffed ride.”

But, he wasn’t complaining. He said he was just happy to get the help he needed.

“Of course going into a new place far away is sort of like, Oh I don’t know about this but within a week I was so comfortable I started coming out and talking to them. You know opening up.”

Between this May and last Tulsa police transported 357 people like Mitchell. Oklahoma City Police only took 61. Nash says the city’s private hospitals take in a lot of the overflow. But, people still fall through the cracks.

“Sometimes they’re going on their own. They’re just going to check themselves into a facility and they’re told there’s no space and they just go away and battle it on their own.”

Gail with the Salvation Army says in her first year one of her guys hit that wall and…

“This gentleman wound up committing suicide.”

But, it’s the cases she doesn’t hear about that worry her.

“We can’t know those numbers but I’m sure they’re a lot higher than we want to think about.”

This year a new center opened in Ardmore and soon Family and Children’s Services plans to open another in Tulsa. And the Department of Mental Health wants to set up one more with the nearly $17 and a half million the legislature is adding to their budget. Mitchell, for one, is glad more help is coming.

“Mental health is just as important as physical health. As many physical health hospitals as there are there should be just as many mental health hospitals also.”

Carrie says, per capita Oklahoma’s funding for mental health is one of the lowest in the nation despite having one of the highest rates of mental illness.

“Physical health is booming, but mental health it’s getting worse, but the remedies or prevention methods aren’t there yet so we need more money donated to mental health.”


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