Oklahoma ranks near bottom in mental health according to numerous studies, fueling higher incarceration rates, challenges for law enforcement, problems in public schools, higher instances of homelessness, greater chronic disease and higher levels of substance abuse for our citizens.
Moreover, it negatively affects our workforce pipeline, costs millions in uncompensated care and robs our children of achieving their greatest future potential.
By ignoring Oklahoma's mental health needs - which is what our legislature has chronically done - Oklahoma's spending on things like incarceration and state-provided health care services steals millions of needed dollars which could be used to invest in making our state better.
What's the answer? Here are some suggestions I'm pushing for:
Head off the problem by catching and addressing it early - achieves better outcomes at a lower cost
It is a fact that Oklahoma children have among the very highest rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) of any state in the country. ACEs include such traumatic experiences as witnessing domestic violence, substance abuse or mental illness in the household; loss of a family member due to incarceration, separation or divorce; or being a victim of abuse and neglect.
Child maltreatment has risen by almost 30 percent since 1990 in Oklahoma, coinciding with a 131 percent increase in juvenile violent crime arrests in that same period. Of children in the juvenile justice system, 70 percent have mental illness.
Every adult was once a child. Which means that every child that begins struggling with mental health challenges will likely develop more serious challenges going into adulthood. Given that half of all mental illnesses appear by age 14 and three-quarters by age 24, early and effective intervention can have profound lifelong benefits. And can help Oklahoma grow into a more prosperous and productive state.
- Significantly increase the number of counselors in our public schools. Currently, Oklahoma has one of the highest counselor to student ratios in the country, nearly double the recommended ratio of 250 to 1 - in Tulsa, it is 350 to 1. We need to fund the State Department of Education's Counselor Corp program, which would allow districts to hire additional school counselors and licensed therapists. Both types of professionals are critical. Children in Oklahoma experience trauma at higher rates than their peers in most other states. This trauma can lead to academic struggles along with a host of negative mental and physical health outcomes. Providing students proper supports is the key to counteracting these realities.
- Fund the State Department of Education's Trauma-Informed Instruction training for every teacher. This is a significant need. So much so that the SDE recently had to cut other critical training so that some teachers could receive training in trauma-informed instruction. They didn't have the money to do both. We need to provide SDE with the resources to properly prepare all of our teachers so they can do the best possible job for the kids in need - and there are a lot of them. A 2019 survey of Oklahoma adolescent school children revealed that more than 1 in 5 reported seriously thinking about suicide within the prior 12 months. (Study released by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
If you want to learn more about childhood trauma in Oklahoma, this series is an excellent resource: Oklahoma Leads The Nation In Childhood Trauma - Tulsa World