“Epidemic Ignored” is a yearlong Investigation into Oklahoma’s Mental Health System by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Even before Oklahoma was a state, leaders grappled with how to provide care to residents with mental illnesses. By wagon, by horse, on foot, by train, thousands of people flooded into the Oklahoma Territory during the late 1800s. And with that deluge of people came a need for a mental health system.
At first, Oklahoma Territory leaders sent residents with mental illnesses away, by train to Illinois.
But in 1895, leaders decided that was too expensive — $17,000 over the previous two years just to transport the residents. It was one of the costliest expenses in the territory’s budget.
“I apprehend that aside from the savings in cost, it will be more desirable in every respect to have these unfortunates cared for near their friends and relatives and by citizens of the Territory,” Gov. William C. Renfrow wrote in his 1895 address to the Legislature.
Renfrow had decided it was time to bring these residents back to receive treatment in Norman at a private psychiatric hospital. That was the inception of Oklahoma’s mental health system.
Unknowingly, Renfrow had shared the same sentiment that eventually would change the nation’s mental health system: the idea that residents should receive treatment close to home.
If territory leaders had embraced the concept of treating Oklahomans in communities where they lived, the mental health system would look much different today. Instead, residents were warehoused in large psychiatric hospitals, and for decades, many communities lacked any available mental health care.
After those hospitals were closed, Oklahoma leaders claimed they would invest in community mental health care. That did not happen.
Instead, in present-day Oklahoma, a fractured, arguably underfunded mental health system is suffocating.
But in a state that hasn’t made a sustained, significant investment in its mental health system, the majority of low-income, uninsured Oklahomans with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders who need help do not get it.
For decades, federal researchers and state officials have warned of the consequences of not making a long-term investment in mental health, and for decades, those warnings have been largely ignored.
Almost 80 years ago, the National Mental Hospital Survey Committee published a report that noted that Oklahoma would save money if it invested in its mental health system.
“Whatever the future may bring,” the report concluded, “Oklahoma cannot look on itself with pride until provision is made for adequate care of its mentally helpless citizens.”
That was in 1937.
Today, Griffin Memorial Hospital in Norman serves as a short-term, psychiatric hospital, largely for low-income, uninsured residents suffering from mental health crises. It can hold up to 120 patients and is usually full, although patients are continually discharged quickly.
The hospital’s namesake, Dr. David W. Griffin, came to Oklahoma in 1899, fresh out of medical school in Virginia. The young psychiatrist from North Carolina was coming to work at a small, private psychiatric hospital, owned by the Oklahoma Sanitarium Co.
The hospital sat on a few acres of land, with some small wooden cottages and a store building that served as the administration building. There were 362 patients.
Early upon arrival, Griffin noticed that, on the stone gates of the hospital, it read, “For The Violent Insane.” He chiseled it off himself.
Griffin did not like the term insane, and he often stressed to the public that Oklahomans with mental illnesses and substance use disorders could find recovery — if given proper care. He forbid anyone in the hospital from using the word “crazy.”
The two most common mental illnesses at the hospital were schizophrenia and manic depression — now called bipolar disorder. Many of the early patients came to the hospital for alcohol abuse or venereal diseases that caused their mental health to decline.
In 1915, the state of Oklahoma bought the hospital from the private company. At this point, the hospital had more than 1,000 patients and 100 employees.
During the next several years, Griffin would discuss with anyone who would listen the conditions of the hospital and the dire need for more funding.
Griffin repeatedly asked for money to expand the hospital and hire enough staff to treat patients. He found some success — but only after a fire broke out at the hospital in 1918 and killed 40 patients. The hospital’s buildings were upgraded then, but even so, during the next 25 years, state hospitals would fall into disrepair.
Griffin started his job at a time when mental health advocacy groups did not widely exist.
“Like so many pioneers, he labored for years practically alone,” columnist Edith Johnson noted in The Daily Oklahoman in 1953.
Estelle Blair, a former assistant commissioner at the Oklahoma Department of Charities and Corrections, wrote to Griffin in March 1915 after moving to Oregon. Blair wrote that she was hopeful the Legislature would recognize Griffin for the hard work and success he saw at the hospital.
“However, from the meager accounts received of that August assembly, it seems that they have seen fit to interest themselves mostly in passing oil legislation,” Blair wrote.
Many of the mental health system’s struggles went unnoticed until 1946, when Mike Gorman, a journalist at The Daily Oklahoman, wrote a series of stories, highlighting shameful, tragic conditions at the hospitals.