Suicide prevention and mental health: A moral imperative

Rep. Lloyd Larsen

Until just last year, Wyoming has led the country in the suicide death rate since 2018, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. This is an issue of life or death; and as a pro-life legislator, I have joined many in the Wyoming Legislature who understand we can no longer, in good conscience, continue to force the obligation of this critical issue of Wyoming lives at the feet of families, churches, non-profits and volunteers.  
One life saved is worth the effort and that is why many in the Legislature voted to bolster the state’s suicide prevention efforts – a successful vote that allowed Wyoming to join the national 988 system. This system is similar in concept to the 911 emergency system except it is specific to suicide. Now, anyone who dials 988 on their phone in Wyoming will have their call answered 24 hours a day, 7-days a week by someone at a suicide call center located in Wyoming that can assist in hopes of preventing the tragedy of someone taking their own life. Ensuring this hotline has the funding needed should be a top priority of all legislators this coming Session.  
In addition to key suicide prevention efforts, the Legislature this year used funding from its budget surplus to enhance funding for psychiatric services for children by community providers like St. Joseph’s in Torrington and the Wyoming Behavioral Institute in Casper. Lack of funding coupled with increasing staff and operational expenses in recent years have forced St. Joseph’s to leave beds unfilled while children in crisis and their families waited for urgent care.  
Further, under the direction of the Speaker of the House of Representatives Albert Sommers and Senate President Ogden Driskill, the Legislature has been working with families and providers across the state to address the gaps in our mental health services. This initiative led to the creation of the Mental Health Task Force, which is charged with developing policy that better defines the role of state government in addressing and preventing mental illness. This important work involves the Governor, the Supreme Court, and state agencies who are responding to those with intellectual, developmental, psychological, and emotional challenges on a daily basis. This includes addressing the lack of services and policy for our state’s older population and those adolescent kids with high behavioral needs who may find themselves sitting in a county jail or a hospital waiting room because there isn’t a provider with the capacity to care for them.
These efforts continue the work that began with redesigning and constructing of the new State Hospital in Evanston and the Wyoming Life Resource Center in Lander. The mission of these two facilities and the policy of the state was amended to share resources with the goal of providing the types of services to those with mental health challenges that would eventually see them return and live in their communities. The work at the new State Hospital and the Life Resource Center led to the behavioral health redesign completed by the legislature, the executive branch, and the community mental health centers. Set to be implemented next July, it will create new policy to prioritize state funds for mental health services to priority populations that are in the most need of mental health services with consistency across the state.
These are complicated topics with high hurdles and not many ready-made fixes. Mental health and suicide in Wyoming are difficult for many Wyoming people to talk about. That is most likely because most Wyoming folks have felt their challenging impacts in some way. It’s certainly easier to look away from these vulnerable populations, but we must face Wyoming’s suicide prevention and mental health issues head-on because every life has inherent value and worth. 
(Lloyd Larsen serves House District 54 and is the Chairman of the Mental Health & Vulnerable Adult Task Force.)