If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of harming themselves, please call 911. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “WYO” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.
CASPER, Wyo. — For Casper native and filmmaker Brooke Schmill, suicide is a problem she’s all too familiar with. Recently, she released “Turning Point: Ending Suicide in Wyoming,” a documentary that analyzes and raises awareness of mental health issues in the state.
Schmill first became interested in the art of filmmaking as a student at Kelly Walsh High School. After excelling in the classroom and even entering a project in the Wyoming High School Short Film Festival, she pursued her ambitions of being a filmmaker at a film school in California.
After finishing her education roughly a decade ago, the Casper native released her first professional documentary — on a topic that personally impacted her and millions of other Americans.
“When I was 15 I lost a friend who took his own life,” Schmill said. “As I got older, I realized that the problem of teen suicide in Wyoming wasn’t getting any better. When I was 21, I decided to make a short film looking at teen suicide in Wyoming.”
At the time, Schmill wasn’t sure she’d revisit the topic of suicide in her work. But after learning in 2021 that Wyoming had the second highest suicide rate per capita in the country — and had held the highest rate for a number of years — she knew there was still work to be done.
Schmill added that while some people use Wyoming’s low population compared to the rest of the country to downplay the significance of the state’s suicide rate, the problem very much still needs addressing.
“That’s an argument used by people who don’t want to think it’s as bad as it is,” she said. “But in 2021 there were 189 people in Wyoming who took their life. And when you think of 189 people, with how small our communities are. … I’m haunted by the image of if 189 people were standing in front of me, and knowing that each one of them completed suicide.”
And so Schmill set about working on a follow-up on the issues of mental health and suicide in the state.
“I had a bunch of people from my first film reach back out to me,” she said. “I thought it was interesting that I was on their mind as someone who would listen to them about this.”
As Schmill began work on her latest documentary, she initially intended it to be a research-based project, relying heavily on data, statistics and opinions from mental health professionals. However, as she began working on it, its scope expanded.
Early in the interviewing stage of production, Schmill realized she didn’t want the documentary to be overly clinical.
“I didn’t want it to be a film of nothing but statistics and research,” she said. “Statistics about how people perform suicide, demographics like males vs. females — that’s all important information. But as one woman I spoke to says in the documentary, ‘I don’t want to hear about statistics; I want to know how to help my friends.'”
However, she didn’t completely forgo the statistics and research either, she added. Schmill said another interviewee told her that highlighting statistics is vital to driving home just how serious the problem is in Wyoming communities.
Schmill traveled throughout the state, interviewing a total of 20 people affected by suicide in various ways. Along the way, as she filmed her encounters on an iPhone, Schmill learned how each community in Wyoming is different and has its own idiosyncracies.
“Each part of Wyoming has its own culture, economy and quirks. And all of that plays a role and makes a difference,” she said.
The best way to understand the differences in the many communities she visited was to simply listen, she said. By truly listening to everyone, she was able to get a grasp on the people and places from across Wyoming.
Something else that became clear during her interviews was the tragically scant mental health resources that are available in much of the state. According to Schmill, nearly every person she talked to brought up a lack of resources.
Afterward came the editing process, and Schmill said she spent hours agonizing over what to cut in order to keep the film within a manageable runtime.
“There are so many stories to tell, and every person’s story is so unique,” she said. “It was hard figuring out what to cut, but this is such a broad discussion. … With how painful and tragic this is, you want to include everyone, but you just can’t.”
In total, Schmill spent two months talking to interviewees, followed by six months of editing the footage and piecing together the finished product.
Upon its completion, Schmill said she felt pride in what she’d created, though she also knew this documentary is just the start of a difficult and complex conversation that needs to be had to address the suicide epidemic in Wyoming.
“When I finished, I’d showed myself that I could do it. It was a really wonderful feeling,” she said. “But this is really only the beginning. I want this to be the start of my prevention efforts and advocacy.”
However, she added that she’ll likely take a break from filmmaking before tackling another project, due to how emotionally draining the process was.
Schmill has screened the documentary in several cities throughout the state, including Gillette, Lander, Rock Springs, Green River and her hometown of Casper. The documentary is also being entered for consideration in several film festivals across the country.
In mid-October, “Turning Point: Ending Suicide in Wyoming” will be uploaded to Schmill’s YouTube channel for all to view.
Ultimately, Schmill said, she hopes the documentary helps people who have been impacted by suicide or who are feeling suicidal.
“One thing I’ve learned through making this film is that it may be a while before people have more access to resources here,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important that people look out for one another and just know that they’re never alone.”