OKLAHOMA CITY —
Mental-health officials report 776 more people called the state's suicide hotline in the first three months of the year compared with the same period of 2009.
Experts say the 65 percent increase in calls is proof that more Oklahomans are at risk of taking their own lives largely due to the poor economy and state budget cuts to health services.
Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White said the state's suicide situation is at a crisis level. She said more money is needed to prevent more deaths.
“We know that the demand is growing,” White said. “We warned folks when they cut our mental health budget (last year) that it was at a time when demand is increasing and there are significant risks of an increase in the suicide rate. Unfortunately we are seeing that come to fruition.”
The 593 suicides reported in 2008's Oklahoma Medical Examiner report represented an increase from the average of 519 suicides per year for the preceding decade. Official suicide statistics typically lag by three years. But White and other experts anticipate the upward trend in Oklahoma to continue in 2009 and 2010.
White said the combination of troubles people experience during economic downturns paired with deep cuts to the mental health agency is causing the state to lose ground on its suicide-prevention efforts.
Phil Lowe, who chairs the legislature-created Oklahoma Youth Suicide Prevention Council, agreed the state is struggling to do more with less.
“People are losing their jobs and losing their health care,” he said. “So if you have someone being treated for depression and then they lose their insurance, have mental stress and possibly lose their homes, there are a lot of things that can happen.”
One mother's pain
Heather Coffey took her own life on Feb. 4, 2009. The Oklahoma City resident was 38 years old and battling alcoholism and mental health problems.
Helen Coffey, Heather's mother, said her daughter visited an emergency room 48 hours before she killed herself. Coffey said she wishes the state would provide more training and resources for professionals and others to identify and treat signs of suicidal behavior.
“I just really feel strongly it is an area, medically, that is neglected,” she said.
Coffey, who recently moved to Portland, Ore., helped start a suicide survivors' support group in Oklahoma City and worked as a suicide-prevention advocate after her daughter's death. She said better funding for mental health issues could help reduce the stigma surrounding depression and help people get help before it is too late.
“The stats say 90 percent of all (people who commit suicide) are people who have diagnosable and treatable mental illnesses,” she said. “Unfortunately these mental illnesses are not being diagnosed and not being treated for people like my daughter.”