A Blizzard of Mental Health Needs: Commentary

Joe Dorman 
The recent cold snap raised awareness of homelessness in Oklahoma — especially in northeast Oklahoma where a man froze to death overnight early in the crisis. 

Officials and volunteers have been worked around the clock to help those in need, sometimes coming into a debate about the best way to assist. Please do what you can to support the programs providing aid to the homeless as we continue to face this weather and tis aftermath, and also those battling the pandemic facing the world.

Much of our homelessness crisis stems from the crisis in mental health, which affects people of all ages.  Nearly 60 percent of Oklahomans in need of mental health treatment last year did not receive help, according to Mental Health America. A large part of this comes from a lack of support for state programs.

This is not just an Oklahoma problem. Trust for America’s Health, a non-partisan public health policy, research and advocacy organization, released a report last year called “The Impact of Chronic Underfunding on America’s Public Health System” with information that will likely shock the general public, though it is all too well known in advocacy circles. 

They detail that the United States spends an estimated $3.6 trillion annually on health, with less than 3 percent of that spending directed toward public health and prevention. Furthermore, they highlight that public health spending as a proportion of total health spending has been decreasing since 2000 and falling in inflation-adjusted terms since the Great Recession of 2008.

The news is not all bad though. More Oklahomans will now be able to receive mental health and addiction services thanks to a recent federal waiver bringing more unity to the treatment of behavioral health illnesses. Oklahoma is one of only seven states to receive an Institution for Mental Diseases (IMD) waiver for serious mental illness and addiction from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). 

This will be a joint effort between the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

Also, twenty-eight members of the Oklahoma Legislature recently announced the formation of a bipartisan, bicameral legislative caucus to serve as a forum for legislators to discuss bipartisan solutions to the state’s ongoing mental health and addiction crisis. 
The caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, and Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, will convene monthly during legislative session to stay informed on key mental health issues and discuss ideas for improving care and systems in Oklahoma.

These lawmakers note that one in five Oklahomans had a mental health condition prior to COVID-19. An estimated 40 percent of Oklahomans are experiencing anxiety and depression, and the CDC reports that Oklahoma opioid overdoses have increased by more than 50 percent in the last 12 months. Due to an increase in the trauma associated with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the risk of childhood mental health conditions also has elevated, especially with pandemic isolation. In short, we face a blizzard of need.

With these recent changes in policy, and a new attitude from lawmakers regarding mental health issues in our state, I have hope that we will begin to see positive changes. 

Please do your part and contact your lawmakers to express support for improved preventative health funding and better policies to help Oklahomans in need of mental health support and treatment.