Pandemic compounded mental health issues at McAlester facility

·3 min read

Jun. 3—Rachael Fisk attributed a swell in mental health cases in southeast Oklahoma to issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recovery and empowerment services director at Carl Albert Mental Health Center in McAlester said the facility would treat about three consumers suffering suicidal ideation per week when she started working there eight years ago — but that number escalated over the past year.

"Now, it's like you're not making it through a day without one — and it's most likely going to be multiple, around four or five in a day," Fisk said.

Carl Albert operates under the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and has seven satellite facilities across a 10-county service area.

Charlene Graham, children's services director at Carl Albert, said children were also impacted by the pandemic.

"COVID has impacted everything and that's why we're trying to check in," she said.

The children's team at Carl Albert also saw an increase in mental health cases, depression, and suicidal thoughts — leading the facility to increase its staff by 17% over the past year.

Graham said children's team employees focused on self-care efforts and met for mental health awareness check-ins to throughout the pandemic.

The children's department also connected with local school officials to offer mental health services for students.

Carl Albert officials said staff saw an uptick in people with depression and more mental health crises over the past year than in previous years.

Some consumers over the past year came with uncommon health crises like psychosis not associated with drugs.

Carl Albert's services also extended to supplying iPads to 75 police and sheriff's department in the 10-county coverage area.

Fisk said the devices helped in several instances where law enforcement officers responded to potential mental health crises.

"Instead of having to drive somebody here to be evaluated, they can just use the iPad and instantly get a mental health professional to assess and see if they need to bring them in and we need to do something further like setting up a plan," Fisk said.

Depression is a common symptom treated at Carl Albert and is commonly associated with suicidal ideation.

Integrated care director Christopher Graham said someone dies of suicide every 11 hours in Oklahoma — and suicide is rarely discussed.

"It's the greatest preventable death that we have that no one talks about," Graham said.

Officials said talking about suicide and the mental health issues leading to suicidal ideation is the first step toward improving someone's wellness.

That process also extends to Carl Albert's staff.

"We all still met regularly even if it was Zoom or we could be here and socially distance," she said. "I even missed in-person meetings — and I didn't think I would."

She said some coworkers seemed down in several meetings over the past year and everyone worked to help each other with their mental health.

Fisk said the key to addressing mental health issues in the workplace — even her own — is paying attention to signs and communicating with people.

"I think it's our nature that we want to help so we want to be tough and worry about ourselves later," she said. "I just think we need to be more mindful and open and pay attention to each other.

"If we're not doing well, we notice," she added. "That's what we do — we notice people's behavior. So we can notice it in each other and we check in. And I think we're pretty good at that."

Carl Albert Executive Director Debbie Moran said each consumer gets team-based care, including a licensed counselor, two case managers, a nurse, an RSS, and a wellness coach.

Anyone in need of mental health services can call the facility at 918-426-7800 or visit 1101 E. Monroe Ave. in McAlester to start the interview process. An appointment will be made within 3-5 days — or immediately if the person shows acute symptoms like hearing voices, suicidal or harmful thoughts, and more.

Contact Adrian O'Hanlon III at aohanlon@mcalesternews.com

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