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Governor brings new focus to mental health

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Gov. Kevin Stitt talks in March to first lady Sarah and Houston, 5, one of their children, after signing five bills that would give him the authority to hire and fire the heads of five state agencies. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Gov. Kevin Stitt talks in March to first lady Sarah and Houston, 5, one of their children, after signing five bills that would give him the authority to hire and fire the heads of five state agencies. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma’s state agency overseeing mental health and substance abuse could undergo a significant transition under Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has already appointed brand new members to its board and has said his wife will play a central role in related policy.

After the Legislature gave him new powers last month to hire agency directors and appoint new board members, Stitt announced five members — all of them new — to the Board of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The new members are Courtney L. Knoblock of Tulsa; Hossein Moini of Lawton; Kristin F. Stacy of Blanchard; A. Jeanne Russell of Tulsa; and Gary Cox of Edmond.

Last week, the governor’s office confirmed it had started interviews for agency director, which included current director Terri White.

“She did a very excellent presentation,” Stitt spokeswoman Donelle Harder said about White’s interview.

While Stitt made a complete change on the board with his appointments, Harder said that doesn’t mean he will seek a change of director.

“The change on the board was not because of Terry White, it was because the governor wanted to bring fresh new faces into serving the state of Oklahoma,” Harder said.

She said there was more interest in serving on the Board of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services than any other agency board, which presented the governor with the best opportunity to bring in new people.

Stitt has talked about the importance of improving the state’s mental health outcomes.

But his wife, Sarah, has been especially outspoken in her desire to play a key role in crafting her husband’s agenda on the issue.

“Mental health is something I hold dear to my heart and I hope to use my position to impact in a really positive way,” Sarah told The Oklahoman in January.

Sarah is spending most of her time in Tulsa with her family until they make the permanent move to Oklahoma City after the school year.

Once based in Oklahoma City, she is expected to be more involved on mental health policy, Harder said.

But she is already making appearances in support of mental health resources.

On Thursday, Sarah participated in a Tulsa viewing of the documentary “Resilience,” which highlights research into adverse childhood experiences, an issue she is expected to draw attention to as first lady.

Mental health challenges persist in Oklahoma, where most residents who need mental health or addiction treatment do not currently receive treatment, according to the Department of Mental Health.

Oklahoma is also in the worst 10 states when it comes to drug deaths, suicide deaths and the number of people reporting they experienced mental distress for two weeks or more in the last month.

“I’m just amazed in the last three or four years how much the conversation (around mental health) has advanced and has really become a bipartisan issue,” said Mike Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma.

“Historically, Democrats have been more sensitive about that issue, not to be critical of Republicans. But now that has changed completely. We find that everybody is very interested and wants to talk about it and I think you see that with Gov. Stitt.”

Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›

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