Oklahomans’ interest in mental health is at an all-time high.

Google searches in Oklahoma for topics related to mental health have increased nearly 50% since the beginning of the pandemic. During the past 12 months, “mental health” was Googled more frequently per capita in Oklahoma than in all but four other states.

This level of interest extends to the Capitol, where policymakers recognize the severe toll COVID-19 has had on the mental well-being of our state’s residents. Since early 2020, more than 50% of Oklahomans have experienced symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, and suicide rates in rural counties increased during the pandemic by an average of 27%.

Healthy Minds Policy Initiative has produced some of the state’s most comprehensive research on the mental health effects of the pandemic. We use this research to empower leaders across the state in helping Oklahomans have the mental health care they need, when and where they need it.

Given the grim data about Oklahoma’s behavioral health outcomes, it’s tempting to be pessimistic. Through our work, however, we have found the opposite to be true – we are more optimistic about the future of mental health care in Oklahoma than ever before, and I’ll share three reasons why.

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The first is that mental health is a bipartisan issue, and real progress is being made at the Capitol.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly agree that we can – and must – improve mental health outcomes in Oklahoma. Nowhere is this more evident than among the 30 legislators in the bipartisan Mental Health Caucus. Lawmakers passed dozens of bills during the 2022 legislative session to increase access to care.

One such bill is Senate Bill 1413, which strengthens the state’s ability to enforce laws requiring that insurance plans cover mental health treatment on par with comparable physical health care. While Oklahomans continue facing unequal barriers to treatment, the state is making meaningful progress toward fully protecting this critical consumer right.

The second reason for optimism is the ongoing transformation of Oklahoma’s approach to school-based mental health resources for students.

The National Center for School Mental Health estimates that up to 80% of students receiving mental health services access them in school. The demand for these services is at an all-time high: a statewide survey of middle- and high-school students shows that in 2020, 17% of teens considered suicide, and nearly 10% attempted it.

Saint Francis Health System reported an 84% increase in pediatric hospital admissions for behavioral health between 2019 and 2021, with roughly 80% of these estimated to be for suicidal ideation or attempt.

To address this epidemic of youth suicides, we worked with Owasso Rep. Mark Vancuren and Muskogee Sen. Dewayne Pemberton to develop House Bill 4106, which establishes a foundation for intervening in a student’s mental health crisis at every public school statewide.

Schools will now have protocols for responding to crises and access to the resources of community mental health providers through formal partnerships. Importantly, these protocols will involve families and caregivers to ensure students receive ongoing treatment and support.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the passage of HB 4106 will save lives.

The third reason for optimism is 988, the new national mental health helpline.

Beginning July 16, anyone will be able to dial 988 and immediately connect with a trained mental health specialist. 988 is also the first step in the state’s new comprehensive crisis response plan led by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The department’s innovative plan includes deploying mobile crisis response teams when calls to 988 warrant additional intervention, as well as the ability to schedule same- or next-day appointments at behavioral health centers across the state.

This plan is made possible by increased appropriations from the Legislature and federal COVID relief funding. As legislators consider other uses for this funding, we encourage additional investment in Oklahoma’s behavioral health care system.

While our state has a better understanding of its mental health challenges – and the solutions – than ever before, there is still work to be done. I invite you to visit Healthy Minds’ website, healthymindspolicy.org, to learn more about these solutions and other opportunities to improve the well-being of all Oklahomans.

Most importantly, I encourage you to be optimistic about the future of mental health care in our state.

Zack Stoycoff is executive director of Healthy Minds Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan research and public policy think tank in Tulsa.