The futures of children struggling with behavioral health conditions are in the hands of Oklahoma legislators; bipartisan support for passage of the cigarette tax is needed 

Do we want children in our state to struggle with behavioral health conditions that cause continuing problems in the home, at school, and in communities? Or do we want to give them the tools to thrive and grow into productive adults capable of healthy relationships with others? Those are key questions posed to state legislators by Amy Steely, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Red River Youth Academy.

Last week, Commissioner Terri White of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services announced that SoonerCare will run out of money to pay for psychiatric residential treatment services for children on Dec. 1 if the legislature does not make-up for the $215 million shortfall created when the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the $1.50 cigarette fee unconstitutional.

According to ODMHSAS data, more than 100,000 children received behavioral health services through SoonerCare in 2016. Of those children, 3,923 of them had conditions so severe that they sought care at a psychiatric residential treatment facility. Red River Youth Academy provides residential treatment for children and adolescents experiencing severe anger, aggression and defiance. In 2016, the facility treated children from 82 cities and 43 counties across Oklahoma – from Beaver to Locust Grove, Hobart to Antlers. The facility employs more than 65 staff who have special training to work with children with behavioral health conditions and a history of trauma.

“These children are often misunderstood because of their behavior, when they really need help processing trauma,” said Steely. “Some of our residents are unable to trust or respect adults and authority figures because they were the source of their trauma and pain, or they never had a chance to bond with a parental figure in a healthy way.”

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Amy Steely, LPC. CEO

Severe abuse and neglect changes the chemistry and structure of the developing brain. Research indicates we have until age 22 to structurally change that damage.

“Treatment helps develop patterns and habits that cause pathways in the brain to be stronger than the aggressive, frontal cortex pathways,” said Steely. “Habits cannot be fixed in seven days of acute care. Children need time to process their past, learn and practice appropriate responses to triggers, adopt healthy coping skills, and rebuild bonds. The clinical professionals and positive role models they work with in residential treatment help do that. This important work takes time and cannot be addressed simply with a short hospital stay.”

If the state budget crisis continues, psychiatric residential treatment facilities across the state will be in jeopardy of closing their doors, access to residential treatment will only be available across state lines to those with commercial insurance or who can afford to pay out of pocket, and hundreds of specially trained behavioral health professionals will lose their jobs. Ancillary businesses that provide these facilities with goods and services, such as food, linens, medical supplies, and pharmaceuticals, will also take a financial hit.

“For the sake of children, families, and communities across Oklahoma, we urge our legislators to find common ground and agree on a budget solution that includes a recurring revenue source to preserve funding for mental health services for the long-haul,” Steely said.