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Local & Regional

Rural Oklahoma Struggles to Overcome Barriers to Mental Health

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Oklahoma Watch
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From its vast, open ranges in the northwest to its lush, rolling hills in the southeast corner, rural Oklahoma still evokes an idyllic image.

The archetype of quiet, small towns with a strong sense of community – where friendliness is abundant and “big city” stresses are few – often marks the popular imagery used to represent the state and its values.

But for many of those who live in Oklahoma’s rural areas, the reality does not match the trouble-free imagery.

Outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa and their suburbs, a disproportionate number of residents betray key signs of untreated mental-health problems and substance abuse, an Oklahoma Watch analysis of state data found.

Some of those signs register tragedy.

Among the 10 Oklahoma counties with the highest suicide rates over the last decade, for example, all but three have populations living mostly in rural areas. And the non-rural areas in those three counties consist of smaller towns – what most people consider rural, or non-urban.

The picture is similar for the 10 counties with the highest fatal drug-overdose rates and the 10 counties with the highest rates of people reporting frequent mental distress. Those counties don’t contain gritty inner-city neighborhoods or endless suburbs; rather almost all have vast, sparsely populated areas punctuated by small or mid-size communities. The largest city in the 10 counties with the highest mental distress rates is Muskogee, whose population is just shy of 40,000.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.

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