Economy, Culture & the Family

COVID-19 not the only threat to Oklahomans’ health, lives

March 30, 2020

Ray Carter

In ordering business closures and restricting citizen movement, government officials have primarily focused on the potential loss of life that could be caused by the COVID-19/coronavirus. Yet experts agree those anti-COVID efforts could also contribute to an increased death count in Oklahoma, highlighting the thin line policymakers are treading.

Small business owners facing the loss of their life’s work due to government closure, those who live paycheck to paycheck who now have been stripped of any income, and those who are simply stressed by the increased uncertainty are all more likely to now consider suicide or fall into substance abuse, officials say.

“People who maybe have never experienced any real serious depression or anxiety are experiencing those things right now, and it very much can be tied to economic loss, job loss,” said Michael W. Brose, chief empowerment officer for the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma.

Audrey Redford, an assistant professor of economics at Western Carolina University, and Thomas K. Duncan, an associate professor of economics at Radford University, recently warned, “A rise in unemployment is correlated with a number of negative socio-economic effects. For some, these effects can be quite deadly, particularly when the changes are rapid as is currently the case.”

“All the historical information that we have is that the likelihood of the suicide rate spiking, or even accidental deaths from overdose...that there will be an increase in those.” —Michael W. Brose, Mental Health Association of Oklahoma

In Oklahoma, the rise in economic hardship has occurred at a historic pace. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission reported that initial unemployment claims for the week ending March 21 jumped 15,884 to 17,720. The commission’s data goes back to 1988. No comparable single-week increase in unemployment claims has ever occurred during those three-plus decades.

At the same time, Oklahoma has long ranked high for suicide, consistently landing among the top 15 states and often in the top 10, depending on the year. From 2007 to 2017, Oklahoma’s suicide rate steadily increased from 14.5 deaths per 100,000 citizens in 2007 to 21 deaths per 100,000 citizens in 2016. The rate declined slightly in 2017, although it remained well above 2007 levels. (More recent data was not available.)

Those numbers could climb again due in part to the economic consequences of the government response to COVID-19/coronavirus, although mental health experts are trying to stem the tide.

Officials have projected the national unemployment rate could reach anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent due to the business shutdowns ordered by state and local governments in response to COVID-19/coronavirus.

If unemployment reaches the high end of those estimates, it will exceed even the unemployment rates of the Great Depression. Notably, U.S. suicide rates hit their highest average during that era.

In 2011, researchers examine suicide rates per 100,000 population found, “The largest increase in the overall suicide rate occurred during the Great Depression (1929–1933), when it surged from 18.0 in 1928 to 22.1 (the all-time high) in 1932, the last full year of the Great Depression. This increase of 22.8% was the highest recorded for any four-year interval during the study period.”

Writing for the American Institute for Economic Research, Redford and Duncan noted a 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper found there was a 3.6-percent increase in the opioid death rate per 100,000 people for every 1 percent rise in unemployment.

If the unemployment rate hits 20 percent, Redford and Duncan note that translates into “an additional 28,797 deaths from opioids annually.”

Other studies have shown abuse of all forms of drugs and alcohol increases with economic losses.

“As the jobless rate increases and the economic losses continue to mount, these numbers are likely to rise,” Redford and Duncan write.

The pair also noted that a 2003 study found that “being unemployed may also increase the risk of suicide two to threefold,” although other studies showed less severe correlations.

Nationally, officials have seen signs of rising waves of suicidal thinking among the general populace.

Knox County, Tennessee, has already seen a dramatic increase in suicides, while officials in Massachusetts have reported a significant increase in calls to suicide hotlines.

In Oklahoma, Brose said the call volume for 2-1-1 Oklahoma, a referral line for community services, is “up dramatically,” as is the call volume to the association.

Brose said “very serious financial failing,” job loss or income loss often generate “situational depression,” and that social-distancing practices can lead to social isolation for many Oklahomans, which can fuel mental deterioration, including anxiety and depression.

“All those things contribute to people having thoughts of taking their own lives,” Brose said, “and then you mix in the issue of people who start to self-medicate.”

The Mental Health Association of Oklahoma has a COVID-19 resources page set up for those experiencing distress, including information on a range of online support groups. Brose said support groups for those with COVID-19 as well as first responders will soon be part of the mix.

“Reach out,” Brose said. “Help’s out there. Call the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma. Call 2-1-1.”

Brose said individuals concerned about a family member or friend should reach out to groups like the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma to determine the best way to help those individuals.

“All the historical information that we have is that the likelihood of the suicide rate spiking—or even accidental deaths from overdose, not necessarily someone intending to take their life—that there will be an increase in those,” Brose said.

The lack of a definite end date for the current economic shutdown and isolation measures is “really adding to the distress,” Brose noted. He said all Oklahomans should focus on “prevention and self-care” during this time.

“You know that Serenity Prayer that they talk about in 12-step meetings?” Brose said. “Well, it so happens, that Serenity Prayer is good for all of us on any day, and particularly right now. There’s things about this that we just have no control over. Let’s control the things we can, and then let’s ask God to help us identify the difference there.”

Those experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.