Better Wyoming conducted a research campaign over five months in 2023 to identify what people think are the most pressing issues when it comes to healthcare in our state.
We summarized the results in our 2023 healthcare campaign report, and in a four-part series of articles we will explore each topic in depth.
Linda Rogers and Randy Leinen are relieved that their son, who lives with two mental health conditions, is finally receiving the care he needs.
The Sundance couple has seen their son hospitalized at least seven times, survive bouts of homelessness, and spend three months in a county jail.
But help wasn’t available in Wyoming, where he could not obtain health insurance.
Their son now lives in Minnesota, where he has access to a program that provides mental and physical healthcare, housing in a group home, and a part-time job.
“Our son needs medical treatment that the criminal justice system, especially in rural Wyoming, cannot provide.”
Through hard work and a hand up, their son is finally on his way to becoming self-sufficient—thousands of miles away.
The fact that he had to leave his home and his family before this happened illustrates what Better Wyoming has heard time and time again: Our state woefully lacks mental health resources, and our residents suffer as a result.
Rogers said her son spent three months in jail as a result of an incident that took place when he had a mental break. “If he had received the care he needed in the first place, he wouldn’t have been in jail,” she said. “Our son needs medical treatment that the criminal justice system, especially in rural Wyoming, cannot provide.”
As part of its ongoing campaign for improved healthcare access, Better Wyoming identified a lack of mental health resources as one of people’s top priorities.
A quarter of respondents to an online Better Wyoming survey said a lack of mental health resources was the number one healthcare problem in their local communities.
At in-person summits across the state, the topic of mental health—as well as its nasty little friends, suicide and substance abuse—arose again and again.
While average Wyomingites broadly recognize the problem—often, because someone in their lives has been impacted by it—the state’s political leaders have been slow to action.
But that’s not to say they’re oblivious. Governor Mark Gordon has hosted two mental health summits in Casper and a series of town halls in communities like Rock Springs and Gillette that particularly struggle with the issue.
Meanwhile, Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), a veteran lawmaker who sits on the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, recently published an op-ed arguing that mental health and suicide prevention are moral imperatives.
As the Legislature’s 2024 budget session approaches, we will soon have a clearer idea of whether lawmakers are willing to take action to improve Wyoming’s mental health crisis or simply make statements instead of change.
A suicide crisis
At the far, tragic end of the spectrum when it comes to mental health-related issues is one with which we’re all familiar: suicide.
Wyoming has had one of the nation’s highest suicide rates for as long as just about anyone can remember. Few residents can claim they don’t know anyone who has died by their own hand, and just about everyone at this point understands that suicide is the end of the road paved with mental illness.
Stopping that final act has been a hot subject at the Wyoming Legislature recently. Earlier this year, lawmakers created a suicide prevention trust fund to support things like the new state-based “988” suicide hotline.
Just about everyone at this point understands that suicide is the end of the road paved with mental illness.
But they didn’t put any money in it.
People like J.J. Anselmi, who grew up in Rock Springs and saw a number of his classmates die by suicide, said the “cowboy up” mentality among lawmakers holds back progress on suicide prevention.
It’s also out of touch, he said, with the growing awareness that something must be done.
“I was dumbfounded to learn that Rock Springs Sen. John Kolb led the attack to block the funding [for “988”],” Anselmi wrote in an op-ed. “Kolb sponsored an amendment to ‘sunset’ the program so, without further action, it simply goes away in 2028 — as if our decades-old suicide problem will magically be solved in a few years.”
Gov. Mark Gordon supports funding the “988” call centers in his proposed 2025-26 state budget. His budget also recommends expanding the operation by adding text and chat lines, features that will prove useful for youth who are accustomed to communicating via text message. The tool would come at a time when youth suicide is on the rise.
Opportunities to act early
Of course, for each person who dies by suicide, there was a lifetime of opportunity before that final act where someone or something could have intervened.
Wyoming faces a lack of healthcare providers in general, which includes mental health professionals. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, just about the entire state qualifies as a Mental Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA).
During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to allow out-of-state mental health providers to practice in Wyoming remotely. But the shortage remains.
Shea Ward, director of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told Better Wyoming that funding for the “988” suicide hotline was a major priority for the Legislature’s upcoming 2024 budget session.
“We don’t want to stunt any of the success we’ve made in suicide prevention,” he said.
But Ward added that a bill to provide resources for in-school K-12 mental health professionals is critical, as well.
The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee will consider in January a proposal to provide funding for more school nurses and counselors. This would help professionals catch and treat mental health problems early, before they reach suicide-level seriousness.
“We spend a whole lot of money in the criminal justice system, in the judicial branch, trying to manage what are mental health issues.”
Meanwhile, the Governor’s proposed budget also includes funding for community mental health centers around the state—which often function as resource hubs for treatment—as well as a pilot program for the justice system that would divert certain people charged with nonviolent crimes toward mental health treatment, instead of punishment.
At the Governor’s second mental health summit, Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox noted that nearly 90 percent of inmates in our state penitentiaries have substance abuse issues.
“We spend a whole lot of money in the criminal justice system, in the judicial branch, trying to manage what are mental health issues,” Fox said.
Whether in community mental health centers, schools, jails, or elsewhere, there are ample opportunities to reach people in Wyoming who suffer from mental illness with the help they need.
The programs coming online won’t help Linda Rogers and Randy Leinen’s son, but perhaps other people’s children will be able to receive the support they need here in Wyoming in the future to stay home and thrive.