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Healthcare professional says 24/7 suicide hotline is necessary in Wyoming

Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Center

Wyoming is number one in the country for suicide per capita, and advocates say those in mental health crisis have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state legislature recently approved around $2.5 million to establish a 24/7 suicide hotline access. Before August 2020, there was no in-state crisis call center or 24/7 suicide hotline access. Wyoming Public Radio's Taylar Stagner spoke with Andi Summerville, the Executive Director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse (WAMHSAC), about the hotline.

Taylar Stagner: Looking at the legislature this year, there was $2.1 million set aside for hotline expansion that went through. But originally, [Governor] Mark Gordon was looking at putting in $7 million. So, I'm curious about your thoughts as to what a difference of care that's going to mean for the state?

Andi Summerville: In terms of the difference in funding levels between the $ 7 million that was originally recommended through the strike team and the Governor's office that came through, we actually have about $2.5 million. So there's $2.1 in ARPA dollars that were approved in the Senate Bill 6060, ARPA bill, but there was already $400,000. That was in the normal budget for the public health prevention division.

So, we do have two call centers that are currently in the state. And both of them only operate part-time hours. Even between the two of them, we are still losing about 50 percent of the calls. They're still going outside of the state of Wyoming. So, they do not currently operate at the same time. They work together to split the hours that they can man right now. And I mean that's working with the funding that we have. The ultimate goal, and certainly from WAMHSAC was to get to 24/7 coverage, that was the number one priority so that we could stop that 50 percent call leakage that was being routed to Texas or Florida when one of our call centers in [the] state was not open. The $2.5 million will get us to 24/7 coverage, the $7 million would have put both call centers up to 24/7 operation at the same time. So we would have had both of them on duty.

And the question that came with that is really, what is Wyoming's call volume? Do we need that type of coverage at this point in time? And right now the data we have says we need one call center on duty 24/7. And so we wanted to be very transparent with the legislature in sharing our experiences and what our forecasts were, for the funding that was needed, given that Wyoming has experienced, you know, some financial hardship in the past. And we want to make sure that every dollar that we get is going to work in a very productive way. Now, that doesn't mean that there might not be a need in the future to increase that call capacity. And the Suicide Lifeline will be going from an 800 number to a three-digit number starting in July of this year, in July of '22. It'll go to 988 with a national education campaign that comes along with that, and we do expect to start to see that call volume grow.

But what we were really focused on was getting two years of service so that we could continue to move through that 988 implementation for the Suicide Lifeline and kind of assess our resources and our gaps and look at how do we fund that sustainably.

TS: Can you tell me a little bit about the importance of having a local person from Wyoming taking that call?

AS: Absolutely, it's incredibly important that we have a local in-state person taking that call and the big umbrella reason is because they know what resources we have here. They know what communities are here. They're going to know things like, it's December and the roads are closed between Laramie and Casper or, you know, we may not be able to get somebody necessarily where we are in Wyoming because we're such a low population state, but [a] large geographic area.

Our resources for mental health are more regionalized than maybe in other states that have large urban areas. And so we really have to work in terms of whether somebody needs crisis stabilization, or they need psychiatric care at a hospital, or they just need to talk to a counselor and maybe they're in a small town and there isn't a licensed mental health professional in that town. We have to work together on a network.

The difference is, if you called before August of 2020, you were absolutely sent to some random state. And while those professionals are very well trained, I will absolutely say it's better than nothing, right? They are very well trained in how to help those callers move forward at the end of the day unless they're activating law enforcement response and calling the local law enforcement agency because of the severity of the call. At the end of the call, really that just ends up being a Google search, right? You live in Bairoil, Wyoming. Here's what I see, here's some phone numbers, you should call them tomorrow. And we can do better than that.

When those calls go out of state. We don't have the ability to follow up. In fact, we don't even know a caller from inside our state called when it goes to an outside call center. So, we really at the end of the day want to make sure those resources are available and reach Wyoming residents because we do have them and we know that they're effective when we can employ them.

TS: I suppose being in a rural area, especially during the pandemic, I was curious if you had any numbers or upticks in calls of suicide attempts, stuff like that, especially as people were inside, secluded?

AS: What we do know, anecdotally, is we've seen over the last, almost 24 months now, well, I guess, 24 months, right, what we've seen over the last 24 months, is a substantial increase in crisis calls that come into the community mental health centers. Those lines, you know, we are seeing on average, at just one of the call centers, on a nightly basis, you know, two to three serious calls that are coming in. And while that doesn't sound like a lot, when you start to add those numbers, that's a lot of calls and a lot of call people.

Now, of course, we don't have in-state data to compare that to what it was before the pandemic, but from our community mental health centers, and from our hospitals and from all of our partner agencies and law enforcement. We've certainly seen a number of people who have started to experience either worsening mental illness or new crises in their lives that were brought on by a variety of reasons, medical conditions, financial concerns, just general stress of the pandemic. And then [on] the other side, we have seen a large uptick in substance use disorder.

People that are battling addiction issues, and those two subjects, addiction and suicide often go together. When somebody is struggling with an addiction disorder, they often have an underlying untreated mental health condition, and unfortunately, can fall to that suicidal state, and so on.

In the numbers game, we actually, absolutely, have seen the impact of the pandemic. And we think that the Suicide Lifeline part of the reason that we really went to the legislature in 2020, and said, please fund this and we thought that we just needed it because it became apparent in the late summer of 2020.

With the increasing crisis calls that we were seeing that it was absolutely a necessary tool in the toolbox. It was something that we could do without.

Note: The date when the hotline will be 24/7 is still being determined. Wyoming residents in crisis should call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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