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Gov. Gordon unveils plan for reforming Wyoming’s mental health system

A report and a roadmap recently released by the governor showcases much of what the state is doing and how the governor’s office plans to help increase access to care.

Gov. Mark Gordon presenting his roadmap to town hall participants Monday. From left to right: Wyoming Department of Family Services Director Korin Schmidt, Gov. Gordon and Wyoming Department of Health Director Stefan Johansson.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Wyoming’s lauded frontier ethos can keep people here from accessing mental health resources, according to Gov. Mark Gordon.

“Wyoming is deeply rooted in a culture of independence and self-reliance that fosters a narrative of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’” a new report from the governor’s office states. 

That report and accompanying roadmap, released Monday, outline Gordon’s plans to address those and other challenges across Wyoming. 

They describe efforts to drive down suicide numbers, bolster mental health staff, support those most in need and identify where the greatest support needs to be available.

“It’s been my honor to present this to you,” he told several dozen people at a mental health town hall at the Capitol. “It represents the work that we have started, it’s not the completed work.”

He added that the roadmap isn’t the solution to all the state’s mental health needs, but is a way to organize thoughts, prioritize resources and find gaps in the system.

This comes after the governor hosted two mental health summits, town halls and many other meetings with stakeholders around Wyoming.

Big picture

For years, Wyoming had the nation’s highest suicide rate. Preliminary numbers analyzed by WyoFile show it likely no longer holds that title, but is still among the states at the top of the list. 

The fight to reduce suicide in the state is compounded by a national mental health crisis, which was exacerbated by the pandemic. 

In light of the deaths and despair gripping so many in Wyoming, Gordon stated that mental health is a priority for his office, hosting a first summit in October 2022. That meeting brought stakeholders together from across the state, ranging from mental health professionals to teachers and judges. 

Solutions often focused on how to best use Wyoming’s resources which are limited by the state’s small population and tax base.

During Monday’s town hall, Wyoming Department of Health Director Stefan Johansson noted the significance of so many agencies and all three branches of the government working together.

“I’ve been doing this for a decade and have not seen the type of collaboration, support and partnership to solve these problems that I’ve seen just in the past couple of years,” he said. “Sounds simple, but agencies working together to solve problems for shared populations is just a huge deal.”

In particular, the governor highlighted one key innovation in Wyoming: a pilot program in Campbell County that launched this month, diverting people with mental health challenges away from incarceration. It’s an approach state Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox has championed. 

“What we’re doing now — locking up people for minor crimes chiefly because of mental illness and substance abuse — is the most expensive and least effective way of dealing with [the problem],” Fox said at the town hall Monday, citing research and anecdotes from judges. “So that makes it kind of easy to think that almost anything else that we do will be an improvement.”

This comes as a new report shows Wyoming’s high rate of incarcerated people waiting to get into the Wyoming State Hospital. The average wait time in Wyoming was 203 days, the authors found. 

Laramie County Sheriff’s Office statistics back that up.

Undersheriff Chance Walkama stated Monday that several people in jail there have been waiting for access to the state hospital for more than 100 days. One was ordered to the hospital last August, “and is number seven on the transport list, having spent 507 days in jail.”

988

Listed twice on his roadmap and several more times in his report, Gordon noted his continued support for funding the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. 

“We are starting to see significant return on investments from the funding that started our 988 Call Center in Wyoming several years ago,” Gordon said. “Ninety-eight percent of the calls that were intercepted by our Wyoming call centers have been able to be de-escalated without deployment of first responders: That’s not only good news, but it also saves money.”

That funding will run out unless lawmakers allocate more money for it this legislative session. Gordon said he’s requesting funds not only to maintain the Wyoming-specific 988 line, but also chat and text functions for the service. 

“This feature is so important for our residents based on the current modes of communication,” he said. 

The report noted there’s also been a lack of funding to update the hotline’s promotional materials.

There are other mental health funding sources at risk, too. Programs like the state’s new Family Resource Center Network — connecting local residents to resources — were created with federal funds, but they’ll need local resources going forward.

“Resource development may be a challenge in smaller communities,” the report notes.

The report included a hefty to-do list, including a more comprehensive accounting of where staff shortages are and how best to attract/maintain mental health workers here.

In July, the state will also launch its behavioral health redesign, which aims to direct resources at community mental health centers toward populations who need the help most. The report notes that there are possible downsides to those plans, though.

“The new model has the potential to leave a gap for general access and preventative services for individuals who are uninsured or underinsured that don’t meet the financial requirement of 200% or below of the federal poverty level,” it states. 

Funding for prevention has long been a struggle in Wyoming, according to Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), who also spoke Monday.

“The common thing we keep hearing today is prevention,” he said, noting that people often wait until they reach a crisis point before they get help. “The Legislature has not been strong in that regard in a very conservative state, so we need to continue to make strides and efforts and look at places where we can address some of those issues before they come to a head.”

Education

Both people attending the town hall and the governor’s report concentrated on mental health resources for kids.

One Cheyenne resident told the governor and his panel that she’s concerned about the challenges young people face.

“I see my grandson’s friends struggle emotionally and mentally, and it breaks my heart,” she said. “I really want to encourage everyone to think about the kids. We need to start at that level.”

As for the state, its efforts range from hiring experts to teach Wyoming providers about trauma-informed care for kids, to encouraging more trauma screening in pediatrics.

Still, the governor’s report states there is more to be done. 

“Operationalizing trauma informed care can be challenging for organizations,” it states. “It will be necessary to support organizations for program implementation.”

Beyond treating kids, the report calls for creating a pipeline of behavioral health care workers of all kinds. On Monday, Gordon said he’s planning to sign an executive order involving the Wyoming health care licensing boards, Wyoming Medicaid, Employees Group Insurance, Wyoming community colleges, the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.

Under that order, Gordon said, those groups would “work together with industry leaders and other health insurance providers to collectively develop a behavioral health workforce pipeline for Wyoming residents.”

“Wyoming, as you know, has difficulty recruiting healthcare professionals,” he said. “Therefore, it is essential that we find a way to grow our own by decreasing burdens to entering the workforce and ensuring appropriate programming is available to meet the needs of industry.”

Thanks and thoughts

Many in the town hall were grateful for all the efforts in Wyoming to bring mental health into the spotlight. That included Laramie County Coroner Rebecca Reid who was grateful for the declining suicide numbers in her corner of the state.

“Our job as the corner is to speak for the dead to give the living the truth,” she said. “And I thank you very much for fighting for each and every one in this room and everybody in Laramie County.”

Reid established the state’s only suicide fatality review, where a select group of locals review someone’s life and death in order to find out how they could prevent future deaths. It’s something Gordon’s report also noted.

Beyond their thankfulness though, those who came to the town hall advocated for state support of law enforcement training to help people in crisis. They also asked for continued efforts to help veterans — the report notes a few such programs — and the growing population of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

And finally, Cheyenne resident Allison Cunningham noted that there are groups whose access to mental health resources is even more limited in Wyoming. Using a sign language interpreter, Cunningham told Gordon about the struggles and isolation that come with being a deaf person trying to get help here, and asked that he set aside money for interpreters at community mental health centers. 

“We’re humans, we have a mind, we have emotions,” she said. “It’s important that deaf individuals have access here in Wyoming because it’s difficult to live here. We are isolated. And that really affects us and our mental health.”


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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