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Some say mental health funding could go a long way toward improving services

The Wyoming House of Representatives
Bob Beck
Wyoming Public Media
The Wyoming House of Representatives

Thanks to American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and increased revenue, the Wyoming legislature took a crack at addressing a longtime problem in the state: the lack of mental health care services. Lawmakers voted to put millions of the federal dollars into the effort.

Wyoming Department of Health Director Stefan Johansson said it's always been a problem.

"Mental health, it seems to be a topic that in state planning or state government, that never goes away, we're talking about it every year," said Johansson.

Fremont Counseling Service Director Scott Hayes said Wyoming's mental health system is fragile.

"And when I say fragile, it means, you know, can we really meet the needs of the population," said Hayes.

Since Wyoming is a large state with a small population that is spread out, it's difficult to provide accessible mental health services for those who need it. A big problem is a lack of providers, but there's also a lack of facilities for those who have more challenging needs.

"Substance use disorders, and then the related problems that go with that remain, I think, you know, a top priority for Fremont County," added Hayes.

He noted that those problems picked up during the pandemic along with some other mental health challenges. But his staff has been able to handle it.

"Our calls for crisis service have increased every year, steadily. It's not like there was a huge surge, like a big skyrocket to the sky one year over another but very steady," said Hayes. "And our staff's ability, over the last three years, to divert people from an involuntary placement into a facility has also improved."

But Hayes is concerned about many rural places in Wyoming that lack providers and aren't as well equipped, or as used to dealing with those in crisis, as Fremont County is.

Wyoming Department of Health director Johansson said some reforms and solid financial help from the legislature may get the state to where it needs to be. For the last couple of years, the state has been talking about how to focus who its community-based providers serve. Johansson said they are trying to address those who are slipping through the cracks of society.

"That we see showing up in other states' systems, churning through the Title 25 system or the correction system," said Johansson. "Most importantly, these high needs kids and their families that we see in the Department of Family Services system, that we really struggled to find adequate placement for or temporary or intermediate services."

And now the state has around $130 million to address some of these problems. The first thing the legislature did was restore the $15 million cut it made to public mental health services last year due to the pandemic. Then it used ARPA money for a wide range of health and mental health facility needs, funding for rural health care, and money for staffing and recruitment.

Andi Sommerville, the Director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, was especially excited that some long-term needs were addressed.

"There's $7 million in ARPA money that can be used for facilities, specifically for crisis stabilization, and women's residential treatment. We know that those are two areas that need quite a bit of help in the state of Wyoming. And this money will really give us a chance to start to improve that network across the state," she said.

Somerville noted that the $13 million for emergency staffing and recruitment is also a critical piece.

"We've seen huge workforce impacts and loss of professionals during the pandemics, early retirements, folks that are burned out, because we've seen our crisis calls increase, etc. So we're hoping to use some of these tools, both with some emergency staffing money to help bring some providers in and get some more providers on the ground," said Sommerville.

She said they should also use this opportunity to develop a good environment to keep providers in the state.

But Johansson pointed out that it's one time money, so they need to use the next two years to not only solve some problems but move improved mental health care into the future. He said by partnering with provider groups and the legislature, he's confident they will get to where they need to be and sustain it.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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