Before Jaclyn Cosgrove ever applied for, and received, the prestigious 2015-16 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, her heart had broken too many times as she heard stories about Oklahomans who suffered while on a waiting list to receive state-funded mental health and substance abuse services.
She had to do something about it.
What followed was Epidemic Ignored, a yearlong Oklahoman investigation funded by the Carter Fellowship that found her talking to individuals and families, advocates, people with power and those without any power at all. However, she could not talk to 51-year-old Benjamin Ferguson.
“Known as ‘Benny’ to his family, Benjamin was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 19,” Jaclyn wrote in her story. “When he was on his medicine and receiving care, Benjamin was a kind, funny and thoughtful person. He was an attentive father.”
Instead of knowing Benny, Jaclyn could only read the tragic documents that coldly laid out the timeline of events that chronicle how this father eventually died alone in his jail cell.
The question was: What set tragedies like this in motion?
“Years ago, when Oklahoma closed its large psychiatric hospitals, the state inadvertently turned patients into inmates,” Jaclyn wrote. “For decades, Oklahoma has spent among the least in the nation on its mental health system. Meanwhile, Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of adults with serious mental illnesses.”
In her story, Jaclyn revealed these gut-wrenching statistics:
- Only one of three Oklahomans who need treatment receives it. Oklahoma has, instead, chosen to spend its dollars on the least effective, costliest form of “treatment” — the criminal justice system.
- The cost of a year of state-funded mental health treatment: $2,000. The cost of a year in prison for someone with serious mental illness: $23,000.
- At last count, 60 percent of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ population, Seventeen Thousand People, have either symptoms or a history of mental illness. It’s the equivalent of jailing 20 percent of Edmond.
Reading statistics, and hearing stories like Benjamin’s made Emily Brandenburg, who serves on our board, furious.
“Once I started reading all four chapters of ‘Epidemic Ignored,’ I couldn’t put it down until I was done,” Emily said. “Jaclyn’s presentation and the stories from the families and jailers just painted the picture, and it’s a picture that’s hard to look at! It only fuels my drive to advocate for better solutions and helped me get a feeling of comradery with these families who struggle to get the right care for their loved one in a system that doesn’t allow them to.”
Halfway through Jaclyn’s investigation, I asked Jaclyn what made her the most furious.
“After the legislative session I was pretty angry because it just felt like reporters and advocates have been pointing out the solution is not that complicated: People need access to treatment,” she said. “I was very frustrated after this session because there was a lot of hope for progress, and it seemed like there was a feeling in the mental health community that there was momentum for change. Until we see that momentum from the public and from lawmakers and from the media, I think we’re going to continue to lose two people a day to suicide, and hundreds of people with mental illness and substance use disorders to jails and prisons. That is a tragedy that hurts everybody, and it hurts me to think about. Those are people we are losing every day.”
In the second Epidemic Ignored chapter, Jaclyn examined how “jails across the state have responded, or ignored, the needs of inmates with mental illnesses and substance use disorders.”
Chapter three was spent chronicling how “lack of accountability not only leaves thousands of jailed Oklahomans vulnerable to abuse, but also sets up taxpayers to finance the mistakes of jail staffs.”
For the final chapter, Jaclyn focused on solutions, because, as she wrote, “without change, many Oklahomans with mental illnesses and substance use disorders will funnel into jails and prison, the least effective and costliest form of ‘treatment.’ ”
At the end of the final chapter, Jaclyn quotes from an 80-year-old National Mental Hospital Survey Committee: “Whatever the future may bring, Oklahoma cannot look on itself with pride until provision is made for adequate care of its mentally helpless citizens.”
And so Jaclyn leaves her readers with these final words:
“The future did not bring change. Instead, Oklahoma repeatedly has been cited as a state with high rates of mental illness and drug abuse — and little action.
“Already this year, at least 725 Oklahomans have died by suicide. That’s almost two people per day.
“Suicide is preventable — when people can access treatment.
“Jail time is preventable — when people can access treatment.
“Homelessness is preventable — when people can access treatment.
“Whatever the future may bring, history and research show that Oklahoma cannot look on itself with pride until its lawmakers, state leaders and residents take responsibility for an epidemic ignored.”