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Candidates address state's mental health challenges

Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt, left, and Drew Edmondson. [The Oklahoman archives]
Gubernatorial candidates Kevin Stitt, left, and Drew Edmondson. [The Oklahoman archives]

Candidates for governor pointed to policies on taxes and management of state agencies in addressing Oklahoma's shortcomings in the area of mental health care.

Both Drew Edmondson and Kevin Stitt expressed support for increased spending on mental health services and addiction treatment, speaking individually at a forum Tuesday hosted by the Oklahoma Behavioral Health Association in Oklahoma City.

Edmondson, the Democratic nominee for governor, said he had a plan to raise taxes on oil and gas production and eliminate the capital gains tax deduction to raise more money for various state services that impact mental health.

He said his plan to raise taxes ensured the state would have the funds necessary to increase its investment in the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

"It's the right thing to do because someone who suffers from addiction or mental illness has a physical or mental problem that is a sickness that can be treated," Edmondson said. "If somebody doesn't want to govern with their heart and would rather govern with their head and their pocketbook, then it is also the smart thing to do. It saves us money in the long run."

Republican Kevin Stitt said an improving economy will create more revenue without raising taxes, but he vowed to bring a higher level of accountability and transparency to state agency budgets to maximize each dollar.

Stitt also said Oklahoma should look at what other states are doing in the areas of criminal justice, mental health care and addiction treatment, and not be slow to adopt policies and reforms that are working elsewhere.

“I don't think we have any different issues in our state than they do in states around us,” Stitt said. “This is not rocket science; I've got 49 other states giving me ideas on how to fund stuff.”

Stitt also said he wanted Oklahoma to impose “fairer sentencing” and to lower court fines and fees, saying, “We have to look at alternative funding for the district attorney."

Just one-third of Oklahomans who need mental health or addiction treatment currently get it, according to the Department of Mental Health.

A reduction in state mental health funding in recent years has created a situation where law enforcement transports of people in mental health crisis have doubled in the last five years, and Oklahoma finds itself 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.

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 ›