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As Wyoming leads the nation for suicide deaths per capita, mental health advocates hope 988 will be established and funded in the state

A green, black, and white flyer depicting information on the 988 hotline
Kamila Kudelska
Wyoming Public Media
A Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers informational handout on the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Wyoming leads the nation for suicide deaths per capita. A bill hopes to address that fact and is slowly moving through the legislature. It would permanently establish the 988 Suicide and Crisis Line in Wyoming, establish quality standards and potentially provide some kind of funding.

In July of 2022, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Line was officially launched nationally. The idea of 988 is that it’s an easier number to remember so more people can reach its resources. Those are 24/7 call access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing suicidal thoughts, substance use, or any other mental health crisis. Before that, people who were seeking help had to dial 800-273 -TALK.

“I thought okay, so instead of calling 800, blah, blah, blah, Talk, you'll dial 988. I thought it was going to be a simple thing,” said Ralph Nieder-Westermann, the executive director of Wyoming Lifeline, one of the two call centers in the state. But to this day, he still can’t remember those three numbers between 800 and TALK.

“It's [the new number] brought more awareness that it's not just a phone number, and it's someone that you're calling,” he said. “It has shed a spotlight on the need to have this continuum of care.”

Nieder-Westermann has been the director of the Wyoming Lifeline call center in Greybull since August 2020 when it opened. He said suicide prevention is personal for him.

“When I was in high school and I was dealing with coming out, I came very close to committing suicide. It was a moment of clarity that prevented me,” he said. “And I've had friends who've lost loved ones to suicide. And Wyoming is in first place in a race that nobody wants to win.”

The Wyoming Lifeline started with just four counties in northwestern Wyoming, but soon after, it expanded to all 23 counties in the state, complementing the one other call center in Casper at the Central Wyoming Counseling Center (CWCC). Nieder-Westermann said the Wyoming Lifeline was unable to get funding in the beginning, so it was relying on its parent company, and on fundraisers and small grants.

This is where the bill working its way through the legislature comes in. Initially, it created a trust fund with $40 million in it for the 988 Suicide and Crisis line. But money was stripped from the trust fund during debate on the floor. On its final reading in the House an amendment was introduced that would create a trust fund but with no money. Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said it would provide the ability for nonprofits and other organizations to give money for the lifeline.

“If we have excess revenue next year similar to the excess revenue we have this year, someone might want to put five to 10 million dollars in the program, so it starts to fund the 988 program,” said Nicholas.

Some lawmakers were against the creation of the trust. There’s data that shows that this is a very effective solutionfor solving mental health crises. But Rep. Tony Locke (R-Casper) said the state should wait until there’s even more.

“Just to make sure we’re doing the right thing. I'm not inclined to make the assumption this is the right solution,” he said.

But Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, said 988 is relatively inexpensive and the best thing about it is that it connects those in need with the right local resources since Wyoming people call centers in Wyoming.

“They're able to make a much faster direct connection into services. And where that's really important is if somebody is in a type of mental health crisis, oftentimes we need to get those folks into services right there, right then,” said Summerville. “So getting them into a crisis stabilization center and knowing where those are and how they operate is incredibly important to that.”

Summerville said the discussion by the legislators was a good one. They discussed how relying on this year's excess budget to fill the trust fund could put the program in a hard place when the state’s running a deficit.

“This is one of those services that we need to make sure we have available, especially in those times. That's when we see our service needs and demands increase as people are dealing with economic fallout or financial losses, etc,” she said.

988 is funded through July 1, 2024 with COVID emergency federal funding. Legislators used this as a reason to add another amendment saying it is the lawmakers’ intent for the Wyoming Department of Health to fund it in its next budget request.

This worries Ralph Nieder-Westermann. He's unsure how the call center will survive if there isn’t some kind of established funding. To him, it’s critical that people from Wyoming can talk to someone who knows what it’s like to live in the state like one woman he talked to.

“She said to me, ‘You don't know what it's like, because you don't live in a small town.’ And I said, ‘I live in Greybull.’ And there was a shock in her voice. She said, ‘Oh my god, I thought I was dialing…’ This is before 988. So, ‘I thought I was dialing an 800 number and I was gonna go someplace else.’ It gave her a sense of ease,” said Neider-Westermann.

The bill passed the House and is heading to the Senate for consideration.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988.

Update 2/13/23: This article was updated to Wyoming leads the nation for suicide deaths per capita.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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