Oklahoma suicides climb to highest since 2006 | Covid19

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Experts began to warn of dire consequences soon after the onset of the pandemic: Mental health crises would intensify. Suicides would increase.

In Oklahoma, those predictions came true.

Last year, 883 Oklahomans died by suicide, according to data provided by the state’s medical examiner’s office.

This is an increase of almost 10% from 2019. It is also the highest number of suicides since at least 2006 – when the agency started publishing the information online – according to an analysis by ‘Oklahoma Watch.

The data also shows:

• The people of Oklahoma who died by suicide have increased 62% since 2006, when they numbered 544.

• Suicides among black people in Oklahoma doubled from 2016 to 2020.

• Suicide rates are highest in rural Oklahoma where access to health care is scarce.

Restrictions designed to protect people from COVID-19 infections have resulted in job losses, financial instability and isolation. With families locked in the house, police and victim advocates say domestic abuse and child abuse has escalated. Weddings, graduation ceremonies and holiday celebrations have been canceled or postponed.

The same goes for the funeral, even as the death toll from the pandemic rose to nearly 620,000 nationwide, including 8,902 in Oklahoma, according to the State Department of Health. Oklahoma. Without these memorials, many loved ones have struggled to find closure and support.

So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary data on suicide this spring, some experts were surprised.

The national suicide rate fell nearly 6% in 2020, according to CDC data.

The report does not include details on race, age, gender, geography or other demographics that could explain the unexpected drop. But experts point to increased access to mental health care, financial support for struggling families and lack of opportunities as possible justifications.

“When the air is a threat to your life, there is a tendency to do what needs to be done to stay alive during a crisis,” said Dr. Richard McKeon, who leads suicide prevention efforts at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. . “The cause of COVID which may have had an impact. “

After the onset of COVID-19, mental health programs began offering telehealth counseling sessions and virtual support groups to accommodate people encouraged to stay home or, in some cases, forced to stay home. in quarantine. A federal moratorium on evictions and an increase in unemployment benefits have eased or delayed financial stress for some families. Bullying at school and harassment at work were less common, with many working or learning at a distance. And social media posts and personal stories from athletes and celebrities like Lady Gaga and former First Lady Michelle Obama have amplified the importance of mental health care and reduced stigma.

McKeon, a clinical psychologist who worked in emergency psychiatric services before joining the federal agency in 2003, said a significant number of suicides take place at home. The pandemic has forced an increase in remote working and virtual education, which has created fewer opportunities for self-harm, he said. As in the rest of the country, telehealth has grown in Oklahoma.

Complicating factors

While the number of national and state suicides fluctuate – Oklahoma’s suicide rate fell in 2017 while the U.S. rate has risen – the state’s rate in 2020 is well above the national average.

For every 100,000 people in the United States, 13.5 committed suicide last year, compared to 22.3 in Oklahoman per 100,000.

The state confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020, and within days, Oklahoma counselors saw an increase in anxiety and depression among their patients. In November, Terri White, who headed the State Department of Mental Health before taking over as chairman of the state’s Mental Health Association, told Oklahoma Watch that the economic fallout from the pandemic had increased the risk of unrest. of mental health and addiction, “some of the fatal ones, like suicide and overdose.”

The pandemic isn’t the only factor in Oklahoma’s high numbers.

According to recently released census data, 16% of Oklahoma residents identify as Native American or Native American in addition to another race. And Native Americans have the highest suicide rate of any racial group in the United States, especially among youth and young adults, according to reports from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Suicide rates also tend to be higher in rural areas where care is further away. More than half of Oklahoma’s 77 counties have fewer than 25,000 residents, according to the census.

And the risk of suicide is greatest in places where the prevalence of firearms is high.

According to the National Children’s Health Survey, Oklahoma children are among the most traumatized in the country. Left untreated, this trauma can lead to serious mental health problems. And the most recent State of Mental Health in America report ranked Oklahoma among the worst states for the prevalence of mental illness and access to care for adults and children.

“Our rates have always been higher,” said Shelby Rowe, program manager at the National Resource Center for Suicide Prevention based at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “We’re looking at different risk factors, things like our incarceration rates are higher and having a parent incarcerated is a suicide risk factor for the child. And then being incarcerated is also a risk factor. So yes, there are things about public health that will put us at greater risk overall. “

Rural counties had the highest suicide rates in 2020, which experts attribute to fewer caregivers and increased stigma around seeking help. In sparsely populated counties, even a single suicide can have a huge impact on the rate. For example, Cimarron County, which has a population of just over 2,000, ranked ninth in the state with one suicide in 2020.

The mode of death has remained consistent with previous years. The vast majority died from gunshot wounds, 62%, followed by asphyxiation, mainly hangings, which accounted for 27%.

Suicides increased in 2020 among Native Americans, Hispanics and blacks in Oklahoma. Native American and Hispanic communities have also contracted COVID-19 at higher rates, according to data from the State Department of Health.

Despite a drop in the overall national suicide rate, McKeon, who leads the federal government‘s prevention efforts, said other states were reporting an increase in suicide among minority populations, which could signal a national trend. This is an area he will take a close look at when the CDC releases its final report.

Rowe, who led suicide prevention efforts at the State Department of Mental Health before moving to the national resource center, said recent racial tensions could be a factor.

After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a black man, in May 2020, protests spread across the country, including Oklahoma. Floyd’s death and the stories of others like Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia have fueled tensions and pitted the police against members of the communities they are charged with protecting and serving.

Oklahoma City has the second highest police murder rate in the country, according to a recent study of federal crime data. Tulsa ranks fifth. In Oklahoma City, blacks are killed more than five times as many as whites.

Rowe, who is Chickasaw and a suicide attempt survivor, said cultural conflicts can be traumatic for people of color.

Signs of hope

The fallout from the pandemic and a recent resurgence of COVID-19 has left many anxious and fearful, especially as another unprecedented school year begins. Malaise spreads with the emergence of the more contagious delta variant, groundbreaking cases question the vaccine’s ability to keep us safe, and unvaccinated Oklahomans are filling hospitals statewide. But Rowe said there was hope.

Disastrous predictions and increased awareness of mental health have led to an increase in aid programs.

The Oklahoma Department of Education has spent $ 35.7 million in federal pandemic relief funds to increase mental health counselors and support in schools.

Starting this school year, all teachers and school staff are required to complete suicide prevention training. Lawmakers also passed a bill requiring insurance companies to pay medical professionals the same amount for telehealth visits as in-person visits, which were previously reimbursed at higher rates. This could encourage more counselors to offer online services, thereby expanding care.

Since the pandemic, the State Department of Mental Health has partnered with Owasso nonprofit Eagle Ops to reduce Oklahoma veteran suicides, which are among the highest from the country. Veterans of the nonprofit organize gun safety presentations at gun shows and other shooting events, and cheer on other veterans struggling with their health. mental to donate their guns to a friend in the military or to the nonprofit organization to keep them safe while they get the treatment they need.

Despite increased efforts to reach those who are suffering and surprising national results, experts said the repercussions of the pandemic were far from over.

The trauma from the pandemic could take years to manifest, Rowe said. For a child who has been abused at home, that pain and anger can grow slowly over time, she said. Others may still be in shock, not yet feeling the emotions that could create future mental health issues.

Rowe predicts that trauma from the pandemic will contribute to suicide rates until at least 2025.

“I would like to have the answers. I think we all wish we had the answers, ”Rowe said. “The only Oklahomans who have the answers are no longer with us.”

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, tax-exempt, 501 (c) (3) corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on the public policy and quality of life issues facing the state is confronted.


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