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Healthy Minds Policy Initiative releases reports on behavioral health trends since onset of COVID-19 pandemic

Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 (Tulsa, OK) – Policy experts at Healthy Minds Policy Initiative released two reports this month outlining the Oklahoma impacts of COVID-19 on overall behavioral health (released Sept. 6) and on children’s behavioral health (released yesterday).

“This research paints a comprehensive and striking picture of how the events of the last 18 months have impacted the mental health of both adults and children in Oklahoma,” said Zack Stoycoff, executive director for Healthy Minds. “As the true impacts become known, it’s important for policymakers, medical practitioners, schools, businesses and community leaders to understand how we can collectively rise to the challenge of this unprecedented time in history. If the numbers tell us anything, it’s that we’re all in this together.”


Key findings: COVID’s 18-month Impact on Oklahoma’s Mental Health

Both anxiety and depression increased dramatically as social isolation, economic hardship and other stressors increased. Anxiety and depression rates at the height of the pandemic reached nearly four times higher than in 2019.

Mental health-related deaths are on the rise. Oklahoma suicides increased 8% to 10% in 2020, and rural areas had a 27% increase. Substance use overdoses are back to 2017 levels and rising, as more than 2 years of improvements in the death rate have been erased so far.

Telehealth increasingly has been used to help ensure access to behavioral health services. For people with commercial insurance, telehealth has become the top method for accessing mental health services.

Access remains challenging for many despite telehealth gains, and just as many people with a perceived need for therapy do not receive it as receive it. Workforce challenges will continue to pose a barrier to meeting behavioral health needs.

COVID-19 has accelerated a crisis in children’s mental health. The number of children and youth struggling with poor mental health in Oklahoma, already increasing before the pandemic, has surged in the pandemic era. The situation in Oklahoma may be worsening at a faster pace than the nation as a whole.

COVID-19 has revealed holes in the children’s mental health treatment system. Children with suicidal thoughts and other psychiatric conditions have overwhelmed Oklahoma’s hospital emergency rooms, implying major gaps in the children’s mental health crisis continuum.

Heightened trauma could have far-reaching, generational impacts. Stressors unique to the COVID-19 era — including deaths in the family, financial hardship, and fewer social supports due to virtual schooling — have compounded high levels of childhood trauma already present in Oklahoma.


The analyses were conducted by a team of researchers that included a Ph. D economist and clinical psychologist with experience in location-specific data modeling and the effects of natural disasters and economic downturns on population-level mental health.

The reports show that as the effects of the virus unfold, it is increasingly important to focus resources and policies on mental health treatment among adults and children in Oklahoma. There is clear evidence that reveals Oklahoma is facing a mental health crisis brought on by an unprecedented year of isolation, economic hardship and illness that is impacting people of all ages.

In both reports, Healthy Minds also issued recommendations for how Oklahoma can address these issues. These recommendations highlight how legislators, educators, local officials, businesses and individuals can play a role in reducing long-term mental health impacts through policies, funding, systems and procedures that prioritize the mental health of all individuals. This includes boosting the behavioral health workforce, integrating behavioral health into primary care, ensuring compliance with mental health parity laws, and expanding crisis services.

The research highlights a particular need to focus on the growing and long-term crisis unfolding for children’s mental health. The recommendations highlight how a whole-community approach is necessary to address children’s mental health issues, including a more systemic and comprehensive approach toward mental health offerings in schools and in pediatric primary care settings.


View the full reports online at www.healthymindspolicy.org.