OKLAHOMA CITY – The biggest health issue in Oklahoma just got bigger.
Fortunately, businesses and individuals have the ability to step up and help, a panel of experts said Friday during a JR/Now webinar.
Before the pandemic, 1 in 4 Oklahomans struggled with mental illness and addiction, said Terri White, chief executive officer of Mental Health Association Oklahoma. “After COVID it’s going to be more than 1 in 4,” White said.
Three primary factors that caused the increase are community fear and anxiety about the disease, the economic downturn and social isolation, said Zack Stoycoff, executive director of Healthy Minds Initiative.
People experiencing depression and anxiety likely grew from 25% of the population to 40% at the height of the pandemic, Stoycoff said.
Actual data won’t be in for months. However, based on how each 1% increase in unemployment affects despair, predictors indicate 34,000 Oklahomans had thoughts of suicide and 9,000 attempted it, Stoycoff said.
The state likely saw 4,500 new cases of alcohol use disorder, 14,000 new cases of drug use disorder and 250 additional deaths by opioid overdose or suicide, he said.
Shane Wharton, president of Love’s Travel Stops and Country Stores, said the company front-line employees were essential workers who had to show up throughout the pandemic and do more due to protocols.
“By summer and fall we saw the fatigue and stress,” Wharton said.
Knowing that stress affected its 30,000 employees both at work and at home, Love’s enacted QPR suicide prevention training. QPR – which stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer – teaches lay people what to do when they suspect someone is considering suicide.
Wharton said some employees later reported that the information helped them save the life of a child or a friend.
Business leaders should use their platform to talk about these things both in their company and in the larger community, Wharton said.
QPR is short but effective training that gives people basic skills to keep someone alive until professional help arrives, White said. “It’s just like CPR. It’s the same thing except for mental health,” she said.
Mental illness and suicide definitely are workplace issues, said White, who urges employers to talk about them and provide assistance and training for workers.
Employees with untreated mental illness are not fully present on the job, she said. That decreases productivity and increases injuries and absenteeism. When an employee dies by suicide, whether at the workplace or somewhere else, it affects the organization overall, she said.
White said the idea that suicide is a selfish choice is a myth. People base the decision on hopelessness, pain or the belief others would be better off without them, she said.
“It’s important to hear these things (underlying causes) are curable and suicide is preventable,” Wharton said.
“It’s a preventable cause of death, but only when someone really reaches out ask the question,” White said. “There is hope and there is help.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you are urged to call 211, a 24/7 hotline.