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Mental Health Experts Worry Pandemic May Have Pushed Up Oklahoma's Already High Youth Suicide Rate

Mental health experts don’t have a clear picture of how COVID has affected Oklahoma’s already high youth suicide rate, but they fear the pandemic has increased it.

For 2019, Oklahoma’s youth suicide rate was about double the national average, but preliminary data shows a slight decline in 2020. In a regular state survey of sixth through 12th grade students, however, one in 10 of the 89,000 kids who completed it said they attempted suicide in the past 12 months.

"Now, that is greater than what necessarily data report otherwise. This is a youth taking a survey and responding to those answers themselves. So, oftentimes, they feel a little more willing to share information because it is a confidential survey that they're doing," said Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Carrie Slatton-Hodges.

Local hospital reports seem to reflect an increase in suicide attempts. Brittany Hayes with the nonprofit Healthy Minds Policy Initiative said Saint Francis reported an 84% increase in youth behavioral health encounters, with eight in 10 linked to suicidal thoughts or behaviors. And Integris emergency rooms admitted 332 youths from January through June for suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Hayes said most of those new admissions are girls, and that can complicate getting them to an appropriate outpatient care facility.

"The difficulty here is finding beds when youth need beds. It can be based on age, but if you have an influx of young women but you only have a certain number of spots for young women, it puts a burden on the hospital system," Hayes said.

Girls in Oklahoma are also hospitalized for nonfatal episodes of self-harm at much higher rates than boys.

Brandi Woods-Littlejohn with the Oklahoma State Department of Health said Oklahoma’s youth suicide rate increased dramatically from 2018 to 2019, and suicide became the leading cause of death for the state's 10- to 17-year-olds for the first time. Underlying mental health problems were a major factor.

"So, when we look at the leading circumstances associated with suicide amongst children, we see that 40% had one or more diagnosed or treated mental health issue; 75% of those were diagnosed with depression," Woods-Littlejohn said.

Experts have expressed concern the pandemic is worsening everyone’s mental health because of isolation, fears of getting severely ill and economic impacts. Slatton-Hodges said it's more important than ever for teachers, parents and even friends to listen to young Oklahomans if they open up about their mental health.

"Once a child is engaged in treatment, is engaged with a therapist, their risk of suicide goes down dramatically. They are much less likely to ever complete a suicide if they're engaged in care. It's when they're suffering, that they're not engaged in care when the risk really goes up," Slatton-Hodges said.

According to state data, white and Native boys have the highest rates of suicide among Oklahoma youths, and kids most often use available guns to kill themselves.

If you or someone you know needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255, or you can call 211.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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