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State data paints a dire picture of Oklahoma teenagers’ mental health

State data released this year showed that one in four Oklahoma teens contemplated suicide sometime between 2020 and 2021.
Jack Lucas Smith
State data released this year showed that one in four Oklahoma teens contemplated suicide sometime between 2020 and 2021.

State data released this year showed that one in four Oklahoma teens contemplated suicide sometime between 2020 and 2021.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a routine report. Since 2003, state health officials have contacted 50 high schools every year, asking them to help collect data on the state’s teenagers. Thad Burk, a child and adolescent health epidemiologist for the State Department of Health, heads up this survey.

“This is a very broad survey,” he said. “We asked about alcohol, drug use, violent sex behaviors, diet, physical activity.”

It’s part of a national effort to identify behaviors tied to early death and bad health, to give researchers and health officials an idea of what’s to come. The State Department of Health released its most recent survey results last month. It paints a dire picture of mental health for Oklahoma teens. It showed shocking rates of depression and suicidality.

“Those have always been high,” he said. “And what I mean is higher than we want, higher than we’d expect… But the concern was the change from 2019 to 2021.”

Nearly half of the teens who participated in 2021 checked yes on the traditional depression symptom of feeling so sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row that they lost interest in usual activities. It found that in 2021, nearly one in four respondents had contemplated suicide in the past year. Among girls, that rate was closer to one in three. Overall, nearly 10 percent of the children had actually made an attempt.

“So they were high going into the pandemic,” Burk said. “And then during the pandemic, when we asked these questions, we saw increases in all of these indicators as well.”

It’s difficult to know exactly what caused the numbers to be so high in the first place, and for them to increase in the pandemic. Of course, there’s an assumption that COVID-induced isolation and fear played some role in driving those figures up more than 10 percent year over year.

It’s also difficult to explain why the figures are so much worse for girls than they are for boys. Burk warns against confusing correlation and causation, but says there are inferences.

“I can refer to other indicators in the survey where females have a higher prevalence of dating violence, both physical dating violence and sexual dating violence,” Burk said. “It’s higher for females than males.”

The survey also contains a section on bullying. If you look only at bullying on school grounds, there isn’t much of a gender difference.

“But being bullied electronically is almost twice as high for females as it is males,” Burk said.

Either way, seeing that more than 43 percent of teens are experiencing depression and that a quarter of them are contemplating suicide seems shocking. Burk says it might be easy to try to write those figures off.

“The CDC, for these questions, does cognitive testing,” Burk said. “And, you know, from those testings, we know that students understand what is being asked of them. So they’re answering it honestly and realistically. And even if it might appear to us as, ‘Well, that seems high. Surely they don’t feel that way.’ The point is enough of them are reporting it often enough and consistently, consistently enough. We know there’s an issue.”

Jeff Dismukes, the spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services says there’s another source of data.

“We really noticed that in 2020 and we saw kids packing up in emergency rooms,” he said. “And we just hadn’t seen that as an issue before. Unfortunately, many of those individuals weren’t able to access treatment even if they have insurance. There’s too many of those individuals who who aren’t receiving the services that they need.”

A lack of mental health resources is a recurring issue here in Oklahoma. The Department of Justice announced last month it’s investigating Oklahoma City area leaders for the lack of mental health services, stating it could constitute civil rights violations.

A report conducted for the state legislature found that in normal times, about 20 percent of Oklahoma’s children and teens require mental health services at some point in their lives, and of those, half are never able to access them.

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Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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