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New Analyses Support Advocates' April 2020 Warning Pandemic Would Lead To Mental Health Crisis

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Flickr User Ryan Melaugh, licensed under CC BY 2.0
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New reports support mental health advocates' warnings last spring that the COVID-19 pandemic would trigger a mental health crisis in Oklahoma.

Researchers with Tulsa-based Healthy Minds Policy Initiative found over the past 18 months dramatic increases in anxiety and depression, with the prevalence among adults reaching rates four times higher than in 2019; an 8% to 10% overall increase in suicides in 2020; and a nearly 30% increase in suicides in rural areas.

The state also lost ground in an area where it had been improving.

"So, we worked as a state to reduce opioid overdoses for several years, and what we've seen is that during the pandemic, we've erased about two, two and a half years' worth of those gains. So, we are back up to 2017 levels, when we last peaked with our drug overdose rate," said Healthy Minds Executive Director Zack Stoycoff

Researchers also expect a sharp increase in mental health issues among children because of the additional trauma from the pandemic, which could affect them well into adulthood.

"We really believe that COVID-19 has accelerated — we're using the term 'accelerated' — a crisis in children's mental health because it was already there," Stoycoff said.

Surveys from 2009 to 2019 showed significant increases in Oklahoma youth experiencing persistent sadness or hopelessness, and in youth who considered, planned or attempted suicide. Major hospitals in Oklahoma have reported seeing increased numbers of kids who are considering or have attempted suicide.

While an expanded use of telehealth has given more people with insurance access to therapists, long wait lists remain because there are not enough mental health care providers.

"We are seeing that 50 counties in Oklahoma don't have a practicing psychiatrist. We are seeing that we have drastic shortfalls of psychologists in Oklahoma," Stoycoff said.

Stoycoff said despite the findings, there is reason for hope because mental health and substance abuse are being discussed in the state more than ever before.

"We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity around mental health and addiction, and I think COVID has really opened the door to systemic, long-term change," Stoycoff said.

Healthy Minds is calling on state officials to do things like help increase the number of mental health care providers in Oklahoma, ensure behavioral health is integrated into primary health care, improve access to mental health care providers and screenings at schools, ensure compliance with laws requiring insurance plans to cover mental health services similarly to other care, and expand crisis services.

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