News Article Details

Cathy Costello: "Mental illness is a labor issue"

The Express-Star - 4/18/2018

April 18--Cathy Costello is in a unique position to run for Oklahoma Labor Commissioner and to advocate for awareness of mental illness.

Her husband, Mark Costello, served as Oklahoma Labor Commissioner until Aug. 23, 2015, when he was stabbed by their son in a restaurant.

Christian Costello was experiencing a psychotic break when he stabbed his father. Christian has schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness with characteristics of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

"He became afraid of us and inexplicably stabbed my husband to death. My husband, Mark Costello, died in my arms," Cathy said.

The Costellos had struggled for a decade to seek help for their son. Because he was 19 when he was diagnosed, it was difficult to enforce treatment.

Ten weeks after her tragedy, Cathy channeled her grief into helping prevent other families from the same fate. She helped pass the Labor Commissioner Mark Costello Act, which provides assisted outpatient treatment to Oklahomans in a mental health crisis who are not compliant with treatment.

It was discovered that by participating in a 12-month treatment program, "They began to discover a sense of accomplishment and some success in a job, success in relationships."

Proper treatment and securing employment are central to helping those with mental illness, she said.

"We saw that even in our son. When he was working, the dignity of work and how that relates to everyone in the world, but [especially] someone who's struggling with a mental health disorder, that dignity gave him that extra strength to want to stay in his treatment program."

She has gone on to be a state and national mental health advocate and educator. She has spoken to both President Donald Trump as well as Patrick Kennedy.

"I would never ask for anyone's vote based on my tragedy. I'm asking for a vote because I do have a vision of the future of the department of labor and because I'm qualified. I have the expertise, I have the knowledge, I have leadership and I have the passion."

Cathy said the impact of mental illness on Oklahomans and the workforce has been ignored for too long.

"It is time. We have one in four Oklahomans who suffer with a mental health issue. We have four million people in this state. That means we have one million people who are struggling," she said. "The reality is you already have people in your workplace who are struggling with a mental health issue,"

Cathy referred to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services' statistics for how mental health affects the workforce.

"[It] is the number one source of low productivity, second leading reason for absenteeism and accounts for 30 percent of disability cost," she said. "Companies lose $600 million each year for claims in workplace due to mental health issues. In two years, the number one reason for disability claims will not be because of physical injury on the job, it will be because of mental health issues."

The most common struggles are depression and anxiety, she said.

Cathy said she is in the process of assembling a task force, the Costello Commission of Mental Health in the Workplace, to consist of doctors, psychiatrists, police chiefs and officers, first responders and human resource workers. This task force would brainstorm in order to approach legislators with ideas to alleviate the problems associated with mental illness in the workplace.

One problem that workers may face is being able to attend regular appointments with therapists or psychiatrists. Costello said these appointments may be urgent due to adjusting medications so the worker can be productive.

However, the stigma associated with mental illness prevents many workers from taking time off to see their mental health practitioner. Then their performance at work begins to deteriorate potentially leading to loss of employment. A worker suffering from a delusional disorder could become paranoid, possibly leading to tragedy in the workplace, she said. Costello said she remembers the post office massacre in Edmond many years ago. She didn't go back to that post office for decades.

"He was a disgruntled employee but there was more to it. He had mental health issues."

As for whether mental health issues have increased, Costello said that perhaps they have but there is also the possibility that people are becoming more verbal about them.

Costello said that cancer used to be highly stigmatized. Costello said her mother, now 86, said when she was in her teens and 20s, people would whisper that someone with cancer "had the c-word."

As Mark and Cathy began speaking out about mental illness and attending National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) meetings, they saw people they knew. After Mark died, Cathy said people began confiding in her about their own family members struggling with mental health issues.

"I thought, I can stay at home and pull the covers over my head or I can do something for other people to prevent another family from going through this."

Cathy said her qualifications as Oklahoma Labor Commissioner candidate include her experience in business and the workforce. Cathy got her first job at the age of 15 and put herself through college. She worked as an educator in Oklahoma and Texas. She and Mark developed eight industries and ran six businesses internationally.

"I know what it's like to sign the front and back of a check, to provide health insurance, 401k, workers compensation, and I know what it's like when we've had hard times and we've had to reach in our own pocket to make payroll so our employees when home with a check," Cathy said. "I think that beats any career political experience one might have and I'm not a career politician. I think that work experience speaks volume to this job."

Moreover, Cathy's 34-year marriage to Mark included looking over his shoulder when he served as the Oklahoma Labor Commissioner.

"I've had a really unique exposure to the department of labor. My life partner, my business partner was the elected labor commissioner for five years and we talked about all the challenges and decisions he was making on a daily basis."

The primaries are June 26. Cathy will run against Leslie Osborn for the Oklahoma Labor Commissioner seat.


(c)2018 The Express-Star (Chickasha, Okla.)

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