First Lady Sarah Stitt’s warm nature cuts through a cold, dreary Oklahoma morning as she walks the grounds of the Oklahoma Governor’s Mansion. Adept at multitasking, she carries conversation while also pausing to turn off the heater in the Oklahoma-shaped pool, likely left on by her oldest son, she quips, who gets a pass because true to his care-taking disposition, he had taken two of his younger siblings swimming.
As the discussion often does among moms, the universal topic of trying to take family photos with a gaggle of kids surfaces.
“I always say, just try to look normal, and my kids are like, ‘What’s normal?!’” laughs Stitt, who adds that husband Gov. Kevin Stitt has concocted just the right recipe of bribery and fun. “He’ll say, ‘If we can get this done in under 35 minutes, I’ll get you ice cream. If we can get it done in under 45, you can watch extra TV.’”
(We’re all adding Gov. Stitt’s method to our mental checklist for future family photos.)
It’s the Stitts’ six kids, ranging in age from 5 to 19, who are their pride and passion, as well as what drove the family to seek office. Neither career politicians, the Stitts believe looking through their kids’ eyes gives them fresh perspective.
“We started to realize they probably won’t all stay here,” said Stitt. “We need to make Oklahoma a place where our kids can be healthy and have a bright future.”
When Gov. Stitt first told Sarah he wanted to run for governor, she asked him not to tell anyone else, perhaps hoping she could talk him out of it.
“He’d bring me statistics, saying, ‘Did you know Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate?’” recalls Stitt. “And I’d say, ‘Then why do you want to be governor?!’”
Gov. Stitt’s logic, and the vision Sarah Stitt began to believe in wholeheartedly too: they could make a difference. As Stitt warmed to the idea, she considered what it would mean for their family.
“When Kevin talked about running for governor, I thought, ‘My life is about to jump tracks,’” said Stitt. “I had developed this great world where I felt pretty in control.”
That world included her own professional accomplishments, founding Gateway Mortgage Group in 2000 with her husband only two years after the couple was married in 1998. Stitt also held a career in residential home building.
All of Stitt’s professional and personal experiences prepared her in various ways for her role as First Lady, her strong work ethic, love of learning, grace under pressure and gift for public speaking all coming into play, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still surreal, even a year later.
“Sometimes I think, ‘What am I doing here?’” Stitt laughs. “I’m such an informal person and [sometimes] feel overwhelmed or like the least qualified person for this.”
Just as she was concerned about her young kids racing through the halls of the historic governor’s mansion, heirlooms and breakables at their fingertips, she also jokes that she’ll probably make the news during her reign for one of her kids throwing a fit in Walmart. In truth, she is learning to navigate a world she was completely unfamiliar with.
“But long ago I stopped worrying about what other people might think,” said Stitt. “I am embracing this opportunity and know everything I’ve been through in my life I can use for a purpose.”
Leading with purpose
As the family began to campaign in earnest, Stitt considered her potential platform as First Lady. Her tumultuous childhood was riddled with the instability of parents dealing with mental health challenges. The effects linger still, but she believes she is stronger and more empathetic for it.
“I knew early on I wanted to focus on mental health, so I started slowly bringing it forward and talking to people about it,” said Stitt.
Every time Stitt mentioned the topic on the campaign trail, Oklahomans thanked her and shared mental health struggles. Since she became First Lady, Stitt has championed improved mental health and trauma-informed care and the organizations heeding that call.
After extensive research on Adverse Childhood Experiences, traumatic events experienced before age 18, Stitt knew to make the greatest impact she should focus her sights on improving mental health awareness among Oklahoma children and youth.
“I’m feeling the momentum, more than I did two years ago, even six or eight months ago,” said Stitt. “From the government to the schools and medical professionals, everyone is open to the conversation about how to give our kids a better future, a healthier future, so they can stay here and be successful.”
According to America’s Health Rankings, Oklahoma is the least healthy state in the country when it comes to the percentage of children with Adverse Childhood Experiences, which include things like child abuse or neglect, poverty, discrimination and a parent with untreated mental illness or substance abuse disorder. Kids with ACEs are more likely to experience poor mental and physical health, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide attempts, all placing added economic burdens not just on the family but the community as a whole.
Improved ACE prevention strategies, treatment access and community education can move the needle toward long-term improved individual and community health. Oklahoma schools were a natural place to affect change, as that’s where kids spend much of their days.
“[Oklahoma State] Superintendent [of Public Instruction] Joy Hofmeister has done a great job implementing resources and practices with kids, getting outside resources involved and helping support teachers to give kids the tools they need to navigate life,” said Stitt.
Stitt grew up in Tulsa, her move to Oklahoma City last year the first time she’s lived elsewhere. Her mom’s own traumatic childhood led to mental health issues not properly treated or diagnosed, which greatly affected Stitt’s household growing up.
Being homeschooled and living in a poor district meant not much time was spent outside her tumultuous living conditions. When Stitt became a teenager, she began to attend public school and realized her family’s normal was not what other kids her age were experiencing. Her faith, then and now, helped her navigate dark times.
“I remember specific times as a young girl and teen feeling very alone or feeling suffocated,” said Stitt. “But at around 14 or 15 I decided everything going on in my life could be used to better myself and the lives of others. I had to embrace that way of thinking and keep my head up. There were still hard times, times I felt isolated and helpless, but I just tried to make the right decisions.”
The stigma of mental illness was very strong, a reality Stitt hopes to continue to change.
“As a child I was not allowed to talk about the issues in my family because my mom was afraid we’d be judged or what people would think,” said Stitt. “That keeps families isolated and keeps them from getting the resources to help them walk through their lives.”
As First Lady, she’s often asked how she overcame and navigated her mom’s suicide attempts and sibling’s drug addiction.
“When my siblings and I look back, we could have that initial anger and frustration over what our life was like,” said Stitt. “But I’m thankful our lives weren’t even more traumatic.”
Stitt says there weren’t the resources then to help her mom, or her dad cope with caring for her mom. Even as her dad has developed his own mental health struggles, Stitt chooses to focus on the positive.
“My siblings have used their experiences to help change the lives of others,” said Stitt, whose mom has been one of her biggest champions for her platform on mental health. “We look at our lives as an opportunity to help others. I’ve been able to offer counsel and resources and friendship to others going through similar things.”
Making mental health a priority
As Stitt has advocated for her father to receive proper mental health care, she’s experienced the challenges in that process.
“Getting a cohesive path was hard,” said Stitt. “It’s not like going to the doctor and saying you have cancer and here are the three treatment options. Mental health depends so much on the individual’s situation and environment.”
Even with the time and resources to make calls and research options, luxuries she knows not everyone has, Stitt floundered. None of the mental health care options recommended by her dad’s primary care physician had appointments sooner than six months out.
“There’s a need to have more professionals providing therapy and psychiatry,” said Stitt, who praises the caliber of medical schools in our state. “We need to attract and keep those professionals in Oklahoma.”
Though she struggled to connect with resources for her dad, she knows Oklahoma has powerful mental health care options available to community members.
“We need to start treating mental health like we do physical health, providing more community support to the nonprofits and community resources that can help,” said Stitt.
Mental health at home
Stitt prioritizes mental health in her home by encouraging an ongoing open dialogue. She strives to teach her kids how to walk through tough situations without becoming overwhelmed and focuses on instilling empathy and perspective, reminding them when they encounter a difficult person that they don’t know what could be going on in other kids’ lives to cause them to act out.
“We use those moments to ask what that other [child] might be walking through,” said Stitt. “[Then] they realize not everyone is out to get them. We’re unable to live healthy and successful lives thinking that way.”
Stitt can relate to that knee-jerk reaction, recalling that her own childhood instinct was survival.
“That’s really hard for someone who’s lived in trauma and instability because you feel like you have to fight for everything,” said Stitt. “It’s really hard to change that mentality.”
Stitt says it’s her husband who helps her gain perspective.
“Kevin has to say to me, ‘Look at the bigger picture; take a step back,’” said Stitt. “I get stuck in what’s happening right now in front of me.”
Part of Stitt’s own self care has been determining how to prioritize her time so she can give her best to her family and others who depend on her. She clearly defines her priorities and sticks to them, though it’s not always easy, especially when as First Lady she has a deluge of positive opportunities to consider.
“All of us are guilty of over-committing ourselves, over-committing our children, over-committing our professional lives,” said Stitt. “In the long run there may be things you say no to or think you might have missed out on, but you will have so much more peace and a lot less stress in your life, which allows you to give your best to your children, family and career.”
The Stitts all recharge on Sundays, dedicated to family time. Weekly family meetings are for going over the upcoming week, talking through problems and celebrating successes and blessings. Spending quality time as a family of eight, or one-on-one time with their kids, particularly being active outdoors, keeps the Stitts connected and refreshed.
“Kevin does a great job of finding time to connect with each kid individually, finding the things they are passionate about and doing those activities with them,” said Stitt.
Hope for the future
As Stitt watches Oklahomans take more personal responsibility for changing the landscape of mental health care in our state, she feels more hopeful than ever about the future.
“We think, and we have been guilty of it too, that government will take care of things, but we have to get involved and take responsibility at a very basic community level,” said Stitt. “In every corner of the state I hear people asking how they can help — and they’re not just asking to ask — they say, ‘Show me where I can get involved to make a difference.’”
With a unique perspective not of leading the state but rather of linking arms with fellow Oklahomans, Stitt believes the state’s children will indeed have brighter futures.
“The most rewarding thing is seeing people come alive with their own passions and desires to make a difference in our state,” said Stitt. “I love seeing pathways opening for people and am really excited about the idea of every Oklahoman having hope for a healthy and successful future.”