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Editorial: 988 mental health line a good start, but more is needed for brain health improvements

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FCC Suicide Hotline-Texting (copy) (copy)

The Federal Communications Commission in 2020 voted to require that phone companies support the 988 number for people to call to reach an existing suicide-prevention hotline, and U.S. communications regulators are requiring that the companies allow people to text as well as call the hotline.

Coming July 1 is a new brain health crisis line intended to quickly connect Oklahomans to various comprehensive services. It’s an important piece to a larger, under-resourced system.

The 988 response line will get callers to options such as talking to a crisis counselor, setting up appointments with providers or dispatching a crisis team for an in-person intervention. It’s a much-needed, simple access point to a complicated, patchwork of health care.

Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Carrie Slatton-Hodges met with the editorial board to explain how the line improves services for patients. The hotline streamlines information for Oklahomans who are unsure where to turn for help and need immediate action.

Another critical feature is a follow-up call. Slatton-Hodges said people who are engaged with therapy or care after a crisis are much less likely to have a repeat episode.

These are all essential aspects to a well-operated crisis line. We commend Slatton-Hodges and her staff for the planning that has gone into this long-overdue project.

However, it’s not the kind of sweeping investments Oklahoma needs to truly put a dent into our dismal outcomes in brain health. Right now, advocates have called youth suicide an “epidemic” in the state. Emergency rooms are seeing double the number of youth with suicidal thoughts or ideation.

Overall, the state ranks sixth in suicide rates, and rural deaths by suicide rose 27% during the pandemic. This is in addition to the uptick in accidental overdoses.

Oklahoma providers are doing all they can to save the most critical patients.

The crisis line doesn’t add services to the state. It doesn’t expand on beds or providers. It doesn’t implement evidence-based prevention programs in our schools, workplaces or houses of worship.

Those are things beyond the control of the Slatton-Hodges and the agency. Significantly more resources are needed get at the root of what causes a person to call the line.

Oklahoma cannot continue to accept the status quo. The state’s brain health status affects nearly every part of a community—workforce productivity, school achievement and homelessness.

We are seeing progress with advocacy groups such as the Healthy Minds Policy Initiative bringing various groups together around common improvement plans. This includes House Bill 4106, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Vancuren, R-Owasso, that would create a collaborative relationship between schools and mental health providers.

The 988 line plays a role in these plans, and we appreciate the leadership Slatton-Hodges has taken to make sure it is carried out effectively.

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