Before the ongoing pandemic, Tulsa resident Barbara Hathcock grabbed my attention as an emerging mental health advocate, appearing at public events and writing letters to the editor critical of state policies.
Hathcock is a member of the Suicide Moms, a Tulsa support group of mothers who lost children to suicide.
“In our despair, we are working to improve mental health care for those who are still here,” she said.
Mental health has become a growing concern as COVID-19 spreads. People are isolated and tensions are built up in homes.
A Tuesday Tulsa World “Let’s Talk” town hall focused on mental health and featured Mike Brose of Mental Health Oklahoma and Dr. Sara Coffey, director of child and adolescent psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences.
Hathcock worries about people who may be experiencing mental health strain and for families of people who are sick and have died.
“This pandemic is helping to put my grief in perspective. I see stories of so many families losing loved ones without being able to comfort them or share their last moments,” she said. “Hopefully, our grief counselors and groups will be able to reach out to those survivors as this occurs in our community.”
Earlier this year, Hathcock was among a group of women wearing orange safety vests at a city forum during the Tulsa police chief hiring process. They questioned finalists about their approach with people in a mental health crisis.
“We want crisis intervention training and better outcomes for mental health interactions with police,” Hathcock said.
The moms focus on prevention for children. Oklahoma has the worst-in-the-nation ranking of children with two or more adverse childhood experiences.
“We think if our kids had had mental health counselors in school and classes that talked about suicide prevention and mental health, then everyone would be comfortable talking about it. Maybe the outcomes would have been different for our children,” Hathcock said.
When Gov. Kevin Stitt recommended merging the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services with the Health Care Authority, Hathcock joined mental health advocates in opposition.
She may talk details of policy and research, but her favorite subject is her son, Keith Jones. He died of suicide in 2017 at age 36 after having a mental illness for two decades.
“Keith was my only son. He was all I had,” she said. “I made a decision not to get into any occupation. This was going to be my occupation for the time being.”
A favorite photo is from a 1995 studio session with the two of them wearing red and smiling big. It’s a typical, normal family photo.
Later that year, Keith, then 15, began showing symptoms of his mental illness.
“He was the quintessential all-American boy. I used to say how lucky I was to have such a fabulous kid — athletic, super smart, helpful with other kids and didn’t let others get bullied,” Hathcock said.
In high school, he began rejecting school, his old friends and sports. He preferred isolation in his bedroom and hiding beneath a hoodie.
“You always question if this is regular teenage angst or something more,” she said.
When Jones was 18, he admitted to Hathcock that he had tried to commit suicide but was unsuccessful.
Jones had insurance, which covered a four-day stay at an in-patient treatment facility. He started on medication for bipolar disorder.
“I had to educate myself,” Hathcock said. “I didn’t realize the severity of his mental illness. I don’t think anyone found the right combination of medication for him. Bipolar has a spectrum, and Keith was at the severe end.
“I look at it like a terminal illness when someone is at that point. He died from bipolar disorder.”
Jones was unable to hold a full-time job and received Social Security Disability Insurance.
“For him, it was hard seeing friends go off to college, get married, have families and careers,” she said. “I hate that he had a mental illness, but I also had my kid around me. I saw him every week. He came over to do laundry, put on music to dance and play Trivial Pursuit.”
Sometimes Jones would self-medicate with alcohol or purposely cut himself. He liked to walk, especially at night, which led to a police confrontation once.
“We had disasters. For the most part my memories are wonderful ones, but there were horrible times,” Hathcock said. “There was always an undercurrent of suicide in him, and I knew that.”
In October 2017, witnesses say her son was walking across a bridge over the Creek Turnpike, put down his backpack and jumped.
“It was a beautiful fall day at four in the afternoon. That’s the last place my son was alive.”
After his death, Hathcock needed a group of mothers like herself, working through the suicide loss of a child.
“I (had) poured myself into making sure he and his wife had everything they needed,” she said. “I advocated for them when he was alive. I didn’t do much else. After death, where does all that go?”
It goes into advocating for more school mental health counselors, police training, insurance parity and medical resources.
“We hope there are more resources now, and the conversation is really gearing up,” she said. “We worked to put people in our Legislature who care and listen. Our time is now.”
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376