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Pandemic Taking A 'Sobering' Toll On Oklahomans' Mental Health: Researcher

Flickr User Ryan Melaugh, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on Oklahomans' mental health, a researcher told the Tulsa City Council on Wednesday. 

"It's not that COVID has changed the mental health interventions we know we need," said Zack Stoycoff, executive director of the Healthy Minds Policy Initiative, during a virtual meeting of the council's urban and economic development committee. "COVID has increased the need for the interventions we've known about for a lot of years."

"We've known what to do, but now we have to do it, and the system simply wasn't equipped to handle the needs of Oklahomans and Tulsans before COVID, and now we've really got to double down as the need increases even further," he said.

Stoycoff said his research projects as many as 9,000 additional suicides statewide brought on by the pandemic and its effects, along with rises in rates of substance use disorder and drug overdose deaths.

"These are deaths, unfortunately, that can be linked and attributed to the virus just as much as a virus-induced death itself," he said.

Children, Stoycoff said, have been particularly hard hit.

"Even pre-COVID, this was a serious crisis in Oklahoma in terms of children's mental health. Data were showing that 70% of sixth-graders experienced moderate-to-high depressive symptoms, and 22% of high schools had considered attempting suicide in 2019," Stoycoff said. "That's sobering data, and unfortunately early data indicate that children are perhaps even more impacted by the stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 era."

Stoycoff said that, compared to Oklahoma County, Tulsa County overuses in-patient beds for those with mental health needs due to capacity constraints on the local health care system's availability of lower-level interventions.

Tulsa Deputy Mayor Amy Brown said the city is investing in strategies like a new mental health unit in the Tulsa Police Department, an enhanced crisis line for individuals and families in need, and community response teams to stabilize patients at their homes when, all interventions that could keep patients from care more restrictive than they may actually need.

"All of those interventions prevent that overuse of those in-patient beds," Brown said. "So the more we can do to support at these lower levels of care, the more efficient and effective our system becomes."

If you are thinking about suicide, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or visit their website to chat with a counselor here.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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