Wyoming: Struggling to provide mental health services in state with nation’s highest suicide rate

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
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Feelings of emotional isolation and loneliness can be a barrier for people with mental health issues. People in Wyoming can often add physical isolation and distancing as obstacles they must overcome in receiving treatment.

In northwest Wyoming, people with mental health issues have few options. Distance between communities, shortage of staff and limited number of beds for patients in crisis are barriers for patients and the professionals who treat them.

At the Governor’s Mental Health Summit on Oct. 11 in Casper, community partners, private providers and state leaders will come together to offer treatment solutions for people in Wyoming, which has the highest rate of suicide deaths in the nation.



Barriers to health

Staff shortages are impacting providers’ ability to help those in need of mental health treatment, said Becky Ransom, executive director of Yellowstone Behavioral Health in Park County.

“As rural communities, it’s hard to hire mental health professionals,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “And with limited funding available and low reimbursement rates from insurance companies, it’s difficult to offer competitive wages.”

Access and finances are two of the biggest barriers to mental health treatment, said Hannah Powers, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who meets with clients via telehealth.

“I think we’re just a really poor state,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “Let’s hypothetically say I have to go see Dr. (Scott) Pollard (a psychiatrist in Cody). I have to drive 40 minutes there, 40 minutes back, so I take half a day off work. Let’s say I’m that person – I don’t have that time, I don’t have the funds.”

Yellowstone Behavioral Health, with which Powers contracts, has a sliding fee scale, but she said no other agencies in the area use that tool.

“It costs $400 to see Dr. Pollard, and a lot of people can’t afford it,” she said. “That’s why I think telehealth is so important. Provides access to all of rural Wyoming.

Telehealth bridges a gap

The use of telehealth, where patients can have remote visits with health care professionals via video calls, has grown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ransom said.

“When we closed our buildings for in-person services, we quickly transitioned to using video to provide services to our customers,” she said. “And that’s something we continue to do.”

Ransom said telehealth has helped with transportation issues for clients and with staff.

“We currently have a therapist who lives in Virginia and does telehealth with our clients,” she said. “So it was a great decision.”

Law enforcement “one stop shop”.

Powell Police Chief Roy Eckert, who also chairs the Yellowstone Behavioral Health Board, said law enforcement is often the first on the scene in mental health crises. He said he understands the mental health crisis facing Wyoming residents.

“Law enforcement has inherited this ‘one-stop shop’ for all calls,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “And it’s not a bad thing for people to call 911 whenever there’s a crisis. We are often the first to catch someone in a mental health crisis.

Eckert said law enforcement officers in Park County are trained in crisis management, which helps them navigate potentially dangerous situations, but added that one of the biggest barriers to treatment for those facing mental health issues health, is the lack of available beds for patients in crisis.

“Inpatient beds in the state of Wyoming are rare,” he said. “They’re hard to find and hard to get people in.”

It’s a problem that’s becoming acute, Ransom said.

“We don’t have enough beds to accommodate not only treatment and crisis treatment, but also long-term accommodation for people with mental health or substance abuse issues,” she said. “It’s a real challenge in the state and a barrier to service.”

Partnerships are key

Molly Hughes is president of the Hughes Charitable Foundation, which is working with the governor’s office to support next week’s summit.

“We’re working with a lot of different nonprofit partners around the state, really just trying to figure out where we can help connect the nonprofits, the for-profits and the government agencies that provide services and hopefully maybe create a network, using the existing systems and the existing organizations that are in place,” she said.

When it comes to finding answers to the mental health crisis facing the state and the nation, the common solution offered is partnership.

“The relationship is huge, not only between mental health and law enforcement, but also those with lived experience and the families of those with lived experience,” Eckert said, adding that it’s important to “come together as a cohesive unit or team to we can to address the problems that exist there.”

In Park County, law enforcement is working closely with Yellowstone Behavioral Health. That kind of partnership is key to supporting those who need help, Ransom said.

“That’s one of the solutions,” she said. “Working not only in partnership with the entire community — whether it’s schools, law enforcement, other social service agencies — but in collaboration.”

“Shattering the Stigma”

Next week’s summit will help bring the conversation about mental health more into the open.

“We need to remove the stigma, as they say, and make sure that people know that it’s okay to be sad, to need help, and to reach out and find it,” Hughes said.

Ransom pointed to the volunteer Healthy Park County Coalition as an example of how communities can bring the mental health conversation to more people.

“Healthy Park County here in Park County, they provide information to the community, to parents, to students, to professionals on how to recognize the symptoms, how to talk to each other, how to ask the questions when you see someone struggling.” , Ransom said. “The more we talk, the less stigma there is and the better the chances of treatment because treatment is successful.”

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