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Terri White: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has never been more important

Terri White: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has never been more important

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Like Mental Health Association Oklahoma, many organizations have never closed their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic. We adapted and increased our services in this new virtual world. I want to thank everyone standing on the front lines — both physical and digital — and helping the people who need assistance the most.

As we know, the negative effects of the pandemic touch every aspect of life.

In April, the Healthy Minds Policy Initiative projected suicide ideation and attempts would increase over the next 12 months, which means 9,400 additional Oklahomans could attempt suicide.

Further, serious mental health consequences will continue long after the pandemic. An estimated 92,000 Oklahomans could have suicidal thoughts, and more than 370 people in the state may die from suicide and drug overdoses stemming from economic hardship. Among the most economically vulnerable adults in Oklahoma, serious mental distress could double.

It is also projected that unemployment and financial stress will increase drug addiction and alcoholism. For example, more than 14,000 additional Oklahomans may develop a drug-use disorder, and an additional 4,500 Oklahomans may develop alcohol-use disorder.

So, what can we tell our policymakers to help create positive change in such a challenging time in our history?

Oklahoma must prioritize funds for mental health and addiction treatment, even in challenging budget times;

It’s critical we ensure the treatment system that is overseen by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is empowered to address the growing crisis, without distraction, such as rushed system overhauls and reforms that will only increase barriers to service or bury these issues within other large organizations;

We must support mental health and addiction insurance parity and fully fund Medicaid expansion, and telehealth parity to ensure fairness for rural Oklahomans;

In an effort to make true meaningful social change, we need to invest in specially trained community mental health response teams that can partner with law enforcement for all 77 counties.

We must do everything in our power to make mental health a cornerstone within our community’s emergency response. This means making mental health professionals an integral part of our first-response systems. That’s going to mean recruiting mental health clinicians, medical professionals and peer support specialists who understand mental health and substance use. We need people who are compassionate, empathetic and have the specialized training to de-escalate the current crisis or challenge and help direct the person to treatment not punishment.

To achieve these goals, we can no longer stand by as policies or policymakers claim to prioritize the wellbeing of Oklahomans and then allow people in need to be denied or have limited access to treatment and affordable housing. We can longer allow access to mental health care to be treated like it’s not a basic human right.

And, finally, no longer can we let them continue to try to punish the addiction, homelessness or mental illness out of people who need to be in treatment and housing rather than the back of a police car, the inside of a jail cell or the inside of a prison cell.

In short, we cannot let the work of mental health and addiction professionals become talking points without action. Their work is too critical. This work properly and effectively helps individuals rebuild their lives when too many archaic systems are in place that don’t work for them, but instead work against them. With the state of our world and the level of division, discrimination, racism and violence we’re seeing across this country, it has never been more important.

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Terri White is CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma and former state commissioner of mental health. This column was adapted from comments she made Thursday at the Zarrow Mental Health Symposium.

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