Terri White will take over as CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma in August. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Terri White, Oklahoma’s former Commissioner of Mental Health, announced Thursday she would take over as Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s CEO beginning in August. White left the Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services earlier this year after leading the agency for 13 years.

On Thursday, a Frontier reporter interviewed White via phone about her new role, Medicaid expansion and COVID-19. White’s answers are transcribed below.

Q: You led the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health for more than a decade. Coming to the Mental Health Association, what will your role look like as CEO, and what kind of knowledge will you be able to carry over?

A: I’m incredibly excited to join Mental Health Association Oklahoma. They are one of the largest private nonprofits working in the mental health arena in Oklahoma, and they are the largest advocacy organization for mental health and brain health in the state of Oklahoma.

My entire career has been, or nearly my entire career, has been spent passionately working and advocating on behalf of Oklahomans in need of mental health and addiction services, whether that was my 13 years as commissioner or my nearly 20 years at the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. I’m really excited to now get to work in our state’s largest advocacy organization and be an even stronger voice to the issues of mental health and brain health in our state.

Q: As head of the Department of Mental Health, you long advocated on mental health issues and substance use issues in the state. Do you think you’ll have more freedom to be even more of an advocate (at the Mental Health Association)?

A: Yes.

Q: How so?

A: I think one of the exciting things about Mental Health Association Oklahoma is that they serve as the social conscience, if you will, for mental health and not just for mental health — for those struggling because of mental illness because of addiction, because of homelessness, because of their involvement in the criminal justice system. And to be able to give a voice to folks who may feel like sometimes they haven’t known how to have a voice and to help reinvigorate the grassroots advocacy around mental health is really exciting.

In my role previously, I would get calls from across the state that somehow would wind up reaching me — families who needed help and didn’t know where to turn or who wanted to help advocate and didn’t know where to turn. And so to reinvigorate that grassroots effort so that every community in Oklahoma has a voice for mental health, that every level of government in Oklahoma hears from these voices who care so deeply. And that address mental illness and addiction issues and homelessness, and the criminal justice system are some of the biggest issues facing our state, if not the biggest issues facing our state.

Q: Looking short term, what will some of your focuses be over the next year?

A: Well, I think obviously in Oklahoma and in our nation right now one of the things that is affecting mental health and brain health is the issue of COVID-19. It is important for our physical health and wellbeing that we are staying isolated and staying safe in our small family groups. But when people feel isolated and disconnected from their routine and their schedule and their connections with their extended family and their friends and the places they work or the schools that they go to, isolation can exacerbate mental health symptoms. Mental illness symptoms can cause a relapse for someone who’s leading a life of recovery from mental illness and or addiction.

On top of that, when you have additional stress of not knowing exactly when and how things are going to turn out, stress can exacerbate those symptoms when you have additional economic stress, or for example, the number of those people were ending up homeless or being evicted from their housing. Right now, those types of stress exacerbate mental illness and addiction relapse.

And so there is no more important time to make sure that we are as a state stepping up to do everything that we can to address those issues and provide access to services. And there’s no more important time for Oklahomans to hear the message that there is hope to reach out for help, that the Mental Health Association is providing virtual support group right now for anyone who is interested or would like to join to make sure that people can make those connections and learn about hope.

Q: Voters just passed Medicaid expansion — how do you think that’s going to change access to mental health treatment and the landscape of mental health treatment in Oklahoma?

A: It was a fantastic step forward when Oklahomans voted to expand Medicaid. Specifically, that’s a wonderful step forward for people struggling with mental health issues. Prior to expansion, 97,000 Oklahomans with a mental health diagnosis did not have health coverage. When you think about that number and you think about having a disease — the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services does an amazing job as the state’s safety net, but safety net means often that you get care and get into the safety net when all else failed and there’s a crisis.

And if you think about having a disease and not getting treatment until it’s a crisis state, that becomes much more difficult to treat So if people now have health coverage not only does it help immediately for those who are struggling, but think about what this looks like in the future for people that at their first signs and symptoms of mental health issues could access care, could have a primary care physician potentially for the first time in their life, or for the first time in years, and now have those signs and symptoms recognized early. We could potentially avoid a lifetime of struggle with these diseases when they’re left untreated.

Currently the average time between first symptoms of mental health issues and treatment, the research shows over and over is, depending on the individual, between six and 23 years. So imagine what it looks like when people have easier access to mental health care from the first sign and symptoms.

The other exciting opportunity is for us to put more prevention services in place because these are diseases like any other disease. And in many cases these diseases can be prevented, and to focus on the next step of preventative services for these diseases is also really exciting. And that requires access to health care, as well.

Q: So hopefully, more access to outpatient treatment?

A: Yes. What we know is that states that have already expanded Medicaid have been able to cut the number of mental health hospital stays nearly in half as compared to states who haven’t. What that shows is that fewer people are ending up in crisis. We need a strong mental health hospital system for when people do need to access that acute care. But this disease deserves the same goals as every other disease, which is preventing hospitalizations whenever possible.

And Medicaid expansion has shown to be a way to cut hospital stays in half.