“I need people to understand how prevalent it is”: Oklahoma suicide rates ascend amid pandemic

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As Oklahomans continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also dealing with a suicide epidemic that’s impacting the state.

Data from the state medical examiner’s office show 883 Oklahomans died by suicide in 2020, the highest amount since 2006.

And many state health officials are pointing out how it affects the state’s adolescent population.

“This is turning into a chronic toxic stress situation,” says INTEGRIS Health’s Allie Friesen. “This is mental health like we’ve never seen it before…In my clinical experience, looking through these charts, we’re seeing younger and younger kids.”

Friesen, who’s INTEGRIS’ Director of Clinical Programs for Behavioral Health, says they’ve seen a 117% increase in adolescent visits to their emergency department for suicidal ideation as of May.

She says the pandemic forces many children to stay in bad situations where they could be seeing increased abuse or neglect and they don’t have other people to turn to.

“Part of my hypothesis is when we have isolation, these kids don’t have these trusted adult or pier resources outside of their homes to decompress,” Friesen said.

According to the State Department of Health, an average of two Oklahomans from 10 to 24 die by suicide every week. It’s the 2nd-leading cause of death for this age group.

Bee Smith with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention has seen it firsthand, as she’s a board member of the Oklahoma chapter and a teacher.

“I need people to understand how prevalent it is,” Smith said. “as much as [suicide] is an uncomfortable conversations, we need to make it comfortable and that will save lives.”

Smith adds this was the case even before COVID.

“You can say due to the pandemic but what has been happening before that but we’re holding that almost a decade,” Smith said.

Mental Health Association Oklahoma CEO Terri White says suicide is also affecting our rural communities.

“Rural residents in general are slightly more likely to experience mental health issues and less likely to seek treatment for those conditions,” White said. “Additionally, transportation and lack of financial resources can further decrease access to mental healthcare in rural communities.”

Senator Kay Floyd has been trying to address the state’s rising numbers in the state legislature. After multiple years of trying, she finally got a bill passed that she hopes will address the issue.

“It will set up training for all teachers and staff in every single school in the state,” Floyd said.

Not only will they receive suicide prevention training, but Floyd says starting next year, training will also be set up for students grades 7 through 12.

Those who want to get involved in suicide awareness can participate in a suicide prevention walk at Bricktown Ballpark on Sept. 18th.

Oklahomans who are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or are in crisis can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 24/7 and toll-free. If you need help, please dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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