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Reports on Wyoming State Government Activity

Suicide prevention group offers breakfast to lawmakers willing to listen

Donna Birkholz (left) catches Sheridan Representative Mark Jennings on his way to early committee meetings. Jennings holds a blue folder filled with data on suicide prevention and resources. They pair stand in a brightly lit part of the statehouse, called the annex. Though it's in the basement, the skylights fill the space with sunshine. In the background there are paintings hanging on the wall.
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Media
Donna Birkholz (left) catches Sheridan Representative Mark Jennings on his way to early committee meetings.

Lawmakers were greeted early Monday morning by 10 members of the Wyoming Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

Donna Birkholz, chairperson of Wyoming's AFSP, and her team of advocates offered breakfast—coffee, donuts, yogurt, fruit and various juices—in exchange for a moment with lawmakers on their way to committee meetings as part of AFSP's sixth annual Capitol Day Breakfast.

The group aimed to raise awareness about suicide prevention and resources, but they also wanted lawmakers to know how important the 988 hotline is to Wyomingites in crisis.

"Wyoming has been in the top five to three states, or number one for suicide deaths per capita," said Birkholz. "So it's a crisis that's been ongoing in Wyoming for a really long time."

Jana Strahan, of Wheatland, is one of the advocates who works with Birkholz. Strahan led lawmakers to an art installation made by her husband Will. The installation is a steel frame that supports 149 keys tied together by string.

"There's one key for every Wyomingite who died by suicide in 2022," said Strahan. "The 988 hotline is like a skeleton key."

Despite being among the nation's leaders in death by suicide per capita, Wyoming was one of the last states in the U.S. to establish a 988 hotline. Since its launch in August 2020, the hotline has answered more than 15,000 calls, with 3,500 of those calls coming from U.S. military veterans.

Because of that, Birkholz said she's watching closely as the Wyoming House and Senate weigh funding for the local 988 hotline.

"There are trained lifeline counselors who are able to help that person through their particular crisis," said Birkholz, "whether they're a member of the general public or a veteran or member of some other population."

The counselors on the other end of the line also steer callers toward resources in Wyoming ranging from therapy, rehabilitation centers and shelters for those experiencing housing insecurity.

"If we lose our local hotline," said Birkholz, "the calls will be rerouted to California. That's a problem because those counselors aren't familiar with the specifics that Wyomingites face. And callers could face longer hold times."

With the end of the budget session less than a week away, lawmakers in the Senate and the House are discussing a measure that would give the Wyoming Department of Health $1.19 million dollars to fund the hotline. An amendment to HB 1 would appropriate $40 million to fund the hotline well into the future passed its second reading.

The 988 hotline is currently being funded by federal COVID relief dollars that are set to lapse in 2025.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that "Wyoming was the last state to establish a local 988 hotline." It has been corrected to say that "Wyoming was one of the last states to establish a 988 hotline."

David Dudley is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, WyoFile, and the Wyoming Truth, among many others. David was a Guggenheim Crime in America Fellow at John Jay College from 2020-2023. During the past 10 years, David has covered city and state government, business, economics and public safety beats for various publications. He lives in Cheyenne with his family.