OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Mental health is top of mind for Oklahoma leaders as September 1st is the first day of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Right on the heels of the state launching its 988 mental crisis hotline, a legislative watchdog is recommending unification across the state’s mental health service agencies.

The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency says the state’s 17 mental health services need to form a task force because too many critical opportunities to help people are getting overlooked.

“Right now, we don’t have enough data to even identify the gaps,” said LOFT Executive Director Mike Jackson.

The group’s newly released report on delivery of mental health services exposes areas of concern.

“Some of those things are lack of comprehensive or quality data for the assessment of outcomes and lack of unified vision and statewide strategy,” Jackson said.

LOFT’s goal was to identify types of mental health and substance abuse services provided by state agencies, determine if any duplication of services exists and examine opportunities to better align expertise with delivery of services, identify challenges facing mental health and substance abuse providers in delivering services, and evaluate best practices among states for the delivery of mental health and substance abuse services and opportunities for improved outcomes.

They’re recommending the Oklahoma legislature form a statewide council of its mental health services to capture crucial information.

“It’s extremely important,” Jackson continued. “That’s the reason why one of our recommendations was to set up this this entity that would bring those 17 identified agencies that do provide services in Oklahoma and bring them to the table so that we can start to capture that information.”

Along with establishing a statewide coordinating council for the delivery of behavioral health services, they would like the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse to provide with its annual budget request a comprehensive “State of Mental Health” annual report reflecting service metrics, including number and demographics of those served, type of services rendered, and identifying gaps in service across all state entities providing mental health and substance abuse services. 

LOFT suggests requiring agencies to provide data to ODMHSAS for the purpose of producing the “State of Mental Health” annual report and requiring all state agencies involved in the delivery of mental health programs and services to develop and submit a coordinated funding plan to the Legislature annually before October 1st of each fiscal year.

The report also recommends requiring ODMHSAS to develop, or contract with a research institution to identify systemic workforce challenges for behavioral health providers and provide a list of recommendations for how to recruit, retain and increase wages for behavioral health providers. A comprehensive report should be presented to the Legislature following the conclusion of this study.

Furthermore, they want to see ODMHSAS and Oklahoma State Department of Education required to complete a baseline inventory of all behavioral health services offered in school districts – whether directly provided by schools, private providers, or ODMHSAS.

Jackson said told KFOR some of the gaps in service that LOFT found, and they found them in coordination and data sharing between state agencies, transportation and access to services, workforce shortages, rural access to behavioral health treatment, mental health treatment within county jails, direct and targeted services for military service members and veterans, behavioral health programs within public schools, and continuum of care.

ODMHSAS sent KFOR a statement on the report Thursday, with spokesman Jeff Dismukes saying, “The report affirms the legislature’s interest in behavioral health and support for our efforts to advance services throughout Oklahoma.  Behavioral health needs, left unaddressed, have far-reaching negative consequences for our state and communities.  We are excited about a commitment to collaboration among the many different state agencies that play a role in delivery of services.   Working together, we will further strengthen outcomes and create a lasting benefit to the state.”

Jackson is optimistic the state legislature will form the task force during the upcoming legislative session, with implementation from the task force rolling out potentially in three or four years.