Aging and mental health in Oklahoma

July 19, 2022

Mental illnesses are not part of the normal aging process – they can and should be treated. As Oklahoma’s population ages, the need for effective behavioral health systems and services for older Oklahomans will continue increasing. Although Oklahoma has taken steps to prioritize older adult mental health in recent years, the state still ranks 46th in the nation for depression among those 65 and older. It has a relatively high of suicide, depression, and other poor mental health outcomes among older adults, and services and practices specific to this population are often overlooked and underutilized.

This issue provides an overview of the older adult behavioral health landscape in Oklahoma for treatable mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety (excluding dementia), with considerations for policy and practice next steps.

Key Takeaways

  • Mental health is worsening for older Oklahomans, especially since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Suicide and unintentional overdose rates are on the rise, and prevalence of depression and frequent mental distress are higher among older Oklahomans than their counterparts nationally.
  • Older Oklahomans face treatment barriers similar to other Oklahomans, including rural accessibility, cost, stigma related to seeking help, and unique cultural needs for some populations (such as Native Americans and those with limited English proficiency).
  • The Oklahoma health care workforce that specializes in older adults is severely limited. Oklahoma lacks a sufficient number of health care professionals with the training and expertise needed to effectively address the mental health needs of older adults.

To meet the needs of older Oklahomans, the state must build a health care system that promotes whole-person health, integrated care, and appropriate supports to age in place when possible. We present several considerations, including:

  • Specialized workforce training
  • Expanding the abilities of primary care practices to treat mental illness
  • Capitalizing on federal funding and waivers to strengthen home-based services
  • Continued and strengthened state agency coordination
  • Expanded use of community-level best practices for older Oklahomans with intensive needs, such as the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team model, and skill empowerment for older adults
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