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Wyoming’s 988 suicide lifeline financially secure, even without a fully funded trust, lawmakers say

While the trust fund didn’t receive enough money this budget session to fund 988 in perpetuity, lawmakers say it’s not at risk of shutting down.

The Wyoming Capitol building during the Wyoming Legislature's 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

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.

By Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

Funding for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is as secure as funding for the Wyoming State Hospital or state retirement, according to Rep. Lloyd Larsen.

“The takeaway right now is that in our next biennial budget, the suicide hotline is funded and expanded to include chat and text,” the Lander Republican said.

But with lawmakers cutting allocations for a 988 trust fund from $40 million — an amount expected to fund 988 in perpetuity — to $10 million this budget session, how is that possible?

The answer is a mix of federal and state money. 

Funding beyond a trust

For starters, there is enough money via federal dollars (including from the American Rescue Plan Act) to pay for 988 through July 2025. Beyond that, 988 will be supported with state general funds via the Wyoming Department of Health.

Specified in this year’s budget (which still must pass scrutiny from the governor) the state is allocating nearly $229,000 for a health department employee to help manage 988. 

Then, about $959,000 is meant to pay for 988 operations the year after those federal dollars dry up. 

After the biennium, these two allocations are slated to double, which will cover the full 988 funding needed going forward without requiring a special funding request (similar to other items like the state hospital in the budget). 

Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) at the 2024 Wyoming Legislature. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

The trust fund doesn’t come into play until it’s fully funded and producing enough money to support 988 on its own.

“Anything we do with the trust fund is just gravy,” Larsen said. 

But it’s still important, he added, to make sure 988 is immune to any budget cuts in the future. Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn) agrees.

“Our budget is deeply reliant on extractive industries,” Western said, noting that the booms and busts of fossil fuel markets often directly translate to how much the state can spend. 

“But the reality is, people don’t stop contemplating suicide on budget cycles, right?” he said. “If anything, during economic downturns, you [need more support] because people are losing their jobs, increased anxiety and stress.”

Western sponsored a House budget amendment to ensure the trust fund received the entire $40 million necessary to fund the lifeline into the future via interest. It’s important to him, he said, and something he’ll continue to work toward next year.

“Obviously, I want it at the full $40 [million],” he said. “But $10 [million] is better than zero.”

While he’s lucky that no one in his immediate family has died from suicide, Western said, everyone in rural Wyoming likely knows someone who has. He went to school with a boy who died in his teens.  

“I would rather they reach for the phone than reach for pills, or a gun or a bottle.” RALPH NIEDER-WESTERMANN, 988 LIFELINE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

“So, you know, I share the stories of people I know, and just the incredible suffering and pain that it’s caused,” he said. “And so that’s my job as a legislator, right? There [are] common-sense things we can do that we know are going to help solve the problem or at least take a big bite out of the problem: To me, that’s just common sense policy.”

During the budget negotiations between the House and the Senate, the fund was initially cut from $40 million to $20 million, Larsen said. And then reduced further to $10 million as the two chambers worked to bridge a billion-dollar gap between the two budget proposals. 

“Not out of dislike for the trust fund, not out of anything other than just trying to reduce the expenditures in this bill to where both sides would vote on it,” Larsen said. 

Still, he believes that efforts from lawmakers like Western and others will fully finance that trust fund in the next year or two, like what happened with the $200 million Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

Where it counts

Call operators working at Wyoming’s 988 LifeLife in Greybull aren’t as concerned about job security as they were before this session, according to executive director Ralph Nieder-Westermann. 

“Some of the trepidation has fallen by the wayside,” he said. 

And he’s grateful for the $10 million going into the trust fund.

“I had been fearful that we would end up with, again, this trust fund ‘beautiful box’ with nothing in it,” he said.

But while he appreciates all this funding, Nieder-Westermann believes there’s more work to be done. That includes completing the trust fund — “I’m hoping for another $10 million [next year], I would be tickled pink if they go to the full $40 [million]” — and properly funding employees in the meantime. 

“The money that was appropriated for the Department of Health for 988 is not sufficient,” he said. “It’s what they could ask for without being turned away.”

Ralph Nieder-Westermann is executive director of Wyoming LifeLine, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline based in Greybull. It is one of two 988 offices working on split 12-hour shifts in Wyoming to provide round-the-clock services. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

That’s because 988 in Wyoming is taking on more calls, while adding text and chat in the next year, and continuing work in a stressful field, he explained. 

The health department allocation provides some certainty, but he doesn’t believe it’ll be enough to meet the office’s growing demands, hire more people and offer hard-working employees pay raises. 

“On days when we get back-to-back difficult calls, it takes an emotional stress on the team,” he said. “So I keep telling them, ‘You need to take care of yourself.’ Self care in this work is really, really important.”

But it’s hard for operators to take a break and step away if there aren’t enough coworkers to cover for them. Nieder-Westermann said they often don’t want to because they care so much. 

“We’re on pace right now to exceed last year’s call volume by about 30%,” he said, noting that while they can take on more calls, the need in Wyoming is significant. 

The Wyoming Department of Health released data Friday that showed suicide numbers increased slightly in 2023, from 155 in 2022 to 157 last year.

That’s after a significant decrease from 2021 (190 deaths), which led to Wyoming likely no longer having the nation’s highest suicide rate — an unfortunate title it held for five years. 

A display created by American Foundation for Suicide Prevention volunteers Will and Jana Strahan at the Capitol advocated for suicide awareness on March 4. While the state’s original estimate of deaths by suicide was 149 for 2022, it has since increased to 155. (Madelyn Beck/WyoFile)

Operators at Wyoming’s 988 call center had an answer speed of eight seconds in December (the last month data was posted), receiving more than 500 calls in that month. 

In its first year of operation — which ended in July — Wyoming’s 988 lifeline reported answering more than 4,000 calls, including more than 1,000 from veterans. In his praise of the lifeline, Gov. Mark Gordon also noted that 99.8% of those calls didn’t require first responder intervention.

“The last thing that we ever want to do is call the cops,” Nieder-Westermann said. “That’s the last thing that we want to do.”

While 988 isn’t an on-call counseling service, he said, it is there for people in crisis who may prefer anonymously talking to a trained stranger than face judgment from other people in their family or community. 

“People should feel free to call us if they’re troubled,” he said. “We’re here to de-escalate, to take somebody off the edge and bring them back into safety … I would rather they reach for the phone than reach for pills, or a gun or a bottle.”


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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