Mental health issue drains emergency services

Posted at 10:44 PM, May 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-26 09:21:40-04

One in five Americans suffer from mental illness each year. And every year, serious mental illness costs America $193 billion in lost earnings.

These numbers from the National Mental Health Alliance highlight a critical problem, especially with recent budget cuts in Oklahoma.

Those who are impacted by serious mental illness face every day struggles and are constantly relying on emergency crews to tend to their needs.

These calls can create a drain on emergency services by tying up resources, which impacts every citizen.

Sandra, a Tulsa woman who is impacted by serious mental illness, has been dealt a hard hand. She and her husband, Johnny, both have mental health issues, and rely on others to keep them headed in the right direction.

Sandra enjoys to color. She said it keeps her busy and occupies her mind. Coloring allows her to focus on what is good, deterring her from fear and anxiety.

For Sandra and Johnny, who were formerly homeless, getting through each day is a victory.

Kellie Wilson, who is pursuing her master's degree in social work at the University of Oklahoma, has worked firsthand with the couple by helping them overcome many obstacles.

"It is really a challenge," Wilson said. "It seems like we get one thing resolved, like getting some health care put in place for them, and then something else comes in and becomes the next crisis."

Sandra and Johnny are a dynamic duo, always joking and lending their only resources to people they think need them more. It's this couple's story that impacts every single person, mentally ill or not.

"A fire apparatus is not the best resource. It's more like a band-aid on an arterial bleed. It may slow it down just for that moment ... we are not the best resource for that person," said Tulsa Fire Department's Chief of Emergency Medical Services Michael Baker.

Sandra and Johnny were calling emergency crews up to 17 times a month. Tulsa firefighters are able to help ease the situation, but they can't provide in depth care or solutions to stop the constant calls.

"We have examples where we have been as many as eight times in a 24-hour period to one person to provide them with lifting and moving assistance," said Chief Baker. "So how does that impact the citizens of Tulsa?"

If an emergency crew is tied up on a low priority emergency and a higher priority call comes in, they're unable to respond.

Thousands of people find themselves in a situation like Sandra and Johnny, adding strain to the system, but there is a solution.

"If we can look at these calls on a case by case basis, one individual, one office in the fire department, working as a team, then we can better match the resources in the community," said Baker.

While better serving people like Sandra and Johnny is important, directing them towards to right people who can give them what they need is important as well. 

Now, Sandra and Johnny's calls have gone down to five times a month, freeing up emergency services for the community.

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