A Passionate Advocate

Meet Terri White, the CEO of the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma

Article by Joe Harwell

Photography by Kimberly Richelle Photography

Originally published in Tulsa City Lifestyle

Terri White became CEO of the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma last August. Originally from Michigan, Terri grew up in Edmond. She spent some undergraduate time at the University of Tulsa, ultimately graduating from OU with bachelor's and master's degrees in social work. Before becoming CEO, Terri served as commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services from 2007 to 2020. She was also the first woman to serve as Oklahoma's Secretary of Health, holding that post under then-Governor Brad Henry from 2009 to 2011.

When asked about her motivation to pursue a career in mental health Terri replied, “I'm an interesting combination of my parents. Dad was a CPA and very analytical. Mom was a social worker. I got both of their loves of data and social work. I enjoy working with data and numbers and love using that skill set for my passion -- promoting brain health.”

Oklahoma needs a passionate advocate for brain health, one of the biggest public health crises facing our state. One out of every four Oklahomans is affected by mental illness and addiction. Yet, only 1 in 3 of these Oklahomans are accessing the services they need to treat these diseases. Left untreated, this disease is deadly. That's when we see people ending up in the criminal justice system, more children in the foster care system, and increases in suicides. But when people have access to treatment, they can be full and productive, healthy citizens.

When asked about the transition from leading a state agency with a budget of $430 million with a workforce of 1,800 to CEO of the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma with a $20 million budget to serve 30,000 Oklahomans affected by mental illness Terri stated, “I was blown away by the dedication and agility of my new organization. I marveled at how our staff dove feet-first into a partnership with the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Day Center." 

"Together, we opened a new emergency overflow shelter in early September. The opening didn't take months or weeks. Instead, we rallied supporters and volunteers and launched it in eight days. Success of the emergency overflow shelter in Tulsa led to the Association partnering to open a similar shelter in Oklahoma City in early 2021. This is what we do. We do the job many others don’t, even when quite challenging, in order to help those who need it most. I am so honored to be a part of the amazing Mental Health Association Oklahoma team.”

I asked Terri to discuss what, if any, stereotypes, stigmas, or misconceptions Oklahoman citizens and policymakers have regarding mental health that create barriers to serving our fellow citizens' needs? “Some people still hold the belief that there are two kinds of mental health and addiction issues. Those that affect the people we know and love, and then there's the kind that “those other people” struggle with - those who are on the streets struggling with homelessness or those who have ended up in the criminal justice system. In reality, that bright-line demarcation doesn't really exist - what exists is that some people have access to treatment and support and some don’t.”

She continued, “Mental illness and brain health is a continuum - and this is a disease just like any other disease. When a person doesn't get treatment for their disease -- evidence-based treatment -- the disease progresses and people get sicker. But the good news is just like other diseases, mental illness is treatable. And every Tulsan in need deserves access to evidence-based treatment.”

What can citizens do to help? “Educate ourselves about these issues and continue to push this dialogue forward, whether it's in our family or among our friends, whether it's in our community of faith or our workplace, and definitely with our policy makers and elected officials. We provide life-saving services to approximately 30,000 Oklahomans each year when they need it the most. Our programs include Housing (committed to a Housing First model), suicide prevention, mental health education, support groups, pro bono counseling, mental health and substance abuse screening and referral, peer-to-peer recovery services, employment placement and support, mobile medical intervention, and criminal justice diversion and advocacy.”

Additionally, the Association leads statewide and grassroots advocacy work on behalf of the most vulnerable individuals affected by mental illness, homelessness, substance use, and/or justice involvement. We work to impact local and state policy, stop stigma and discrimination, and create solutions to the most pressing problems to help better the lives of countless thousands of Oklahomans and their families.

“When Oklahomans experience mental illness, addiction, homelessness, or thoughts of suicide, your readers can become most helpful to Mental Health Association Oklahoma's mission by donating at MHAOK.org or by volunteering with the Association. Our donors generous gifts help guide people to essential treatment services, virtual support groups, shelter, housing, employment services, and more. We simply can't do any of that without our unique donors and volunteers. I am so proud and grateful to let them know how valuable they are to us and their impact on the community.”

We asked Terri to discuss opportunities or challenges encountered as a female head of a state agency or the Mental Health Association? “There have been a couple of times in my career when terms like "relentless" were used to try to dissuade me from being vocal and to try to convey a negative connotation to how I stay centered and strong on standing up for, and remaining focused on what is right and solutions now. But those comments didn’t stop me because I understand that my actions are part of something bigger than just me; and, that the greatest personal reward -- second only to being a mother -- comes from passionately serving others, modeling compassion and standing up for those who struggle to be seen, to be heard or who have been disadvantaged.”

How would you advise women considering a career in mental health? “There are so many ways women can be involved in mental health. They can be physicians, social workers, CEOs, peer outreach and support workers, researchers, professionals such as accountants, lawyers, IT specialists, administrative professionals, and more who choose to work and use their talents and skills to benefit a mental health agency. They can volunteer with mental health organizations or become philanthropists who give to mental health causes. Choosing any of these options will be a rewarding way to help their community and have a positive impact on the biggest public health issue facing our state. As they get involved with mental health, my best piece of advice is to never let anyone convince them that expecting excellence of themselves and others when it comes to mental health (or anything else) is expecting or demanding too much or that it can wait or come slowly...and if they are successful, if they are dedicated and passionate...maybe they can proudly be called “relentless,” too.”

The Mental Health Association of Oklahoma is located at 5330 East 31st Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma 74135. For information visit MHAOK.org or call 918.585.1213.

“There are many ways women can use their talents and skills to benefit a mental health agency from physicians, social workers, peer outreach and professionals such as accountants, lawyers and IT specialists.”

SAVE THE DATE for Carnivale!

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Cox Business Center | Tulsa, Oklahoma | 6:30 PM

Event Chairs: Tina Parkhill & Frauke Petersen

1920s Flapper Black Tie Attire

Be part of the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma 2021 fundraiser, Carnivale Rising. For sponsorships and information visit BestPartyInTown.org.

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