State Lawmakers OK Funds for Suicide Hotline

The proposed funding would cover an around-the-clock call center

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Feb 23, 2022

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The state Senate has approved $2.1 million for a suicide hotline that would run continuously day and night at a time when Wyoming owns the highest suicide rate in the nation.

The budget proposal is now being considered by the House of Representatives. The money would come from the $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act, federal Covid-19 relief funds that Wyoming is set to receive over the next two years.

Gov. Mark Gordon had proposed using $7 million for the hotline upgrade, but that was rejected last month by a Joint Appropriations Committee of state lawmakers. Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Wyoming Truth that the governor’s proposal failed because of a lack of details. The Senate then turned down another budget amendment last week proposed by Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) to allocate $3 million for the effort after a legislator expressed concerns about using temporary funding for a 24-7 hotline.

Wyoming recorded the highest suicide rate in the nation in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the most recent year national figures have been posted.

“I think that given our suicide rate, clearly, we need to find ways to do more, and to make sure that what we do is evidence-based, and therefore, effective,” said Donna Birkholz, a board member for the Wyoming chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a grassroots nonprofit with volunteers throughout the state.

Wyoming was the only state without a suicide lifeline call center until 2020. That year, the state legislature appropriated about $400,000 for two years to launch the state’s first suicide lifeline call center. Previously, calls from Wyoming were answered by out-of-state suicide hotline call centers.

The state operates two local suicide hotlines for limited hours. The Central Wyoming Counseling Center has a suicide lifeline that is open from 4 p.m. to midnight seven days a week, while the privately funded Wyoming Lifeline is open Mondays to Fridays from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Centers. The association is made up of twenty private, nonprofit centers throughout Wyoming that offer outpatient and residential mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services.

“We firmly believe that the in-state call center is a critical part of the continuum of mental health care in Wyoming,” Summerville said. “Wyoming is a geographically but sparsely populated state, and if you don’t live in Wyoming, it’s hard to know where the resources are that can help people that contact the lifeline. With a local suicide lifeline, we can work directly with partners, such as law enforcement and community mental health centers, to connect residents directly to appropriate services when they call.”

Wyoming Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) proposed setting aside $2.1 million for a 24-7 suicide hotline for Wyoming. The state House of Representatives will consider the bill this week.

Baldwin, the state senator, introduced the budget amendment that includes $2.1 million to set up the 24-7 hotline. It passed on a 16-13 vote Friday. The House Appropriations Committee first took up the bill Tuesday.

“I think preventing suicide should be a priority,” Baldwin said. “Mental health in Wyoming, frankly, should be a huge priority. And I think this is an opportunity we have to inject a little bit of money into this and get this up and going and strong.”

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) argued against the funding last week because it was tied to federal relief money.

“These are one-time monies,” Hicks said after Baldwin’s first request for funding. “You’re creating an obligation. That’s fine if we think this is important, but this is not the place to put something. If you really feel compelled that this is important, you wait until the regular budget and you put it in the department of health’s budget. Because these are good for two years and then maybe we can refund the program again. …This is not how you want to build a program.”

Baldwin, describing suicide as a nationwide epidemic, responded that the state’s mental health system is already looking into other sources of funding, such as grants, so that suicide prevention services can continue even after relief funding is spent.

Wyoming reported a suicide rate of 30.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020, slightly higher than the 29.6 rate recorded the previous year, according to data from the Wyoming Department of Health. The 2020 suicide rate trails the state’s 15-year high of 31.2 in 2012.

A person who calls Wyoming’s suicide hotlines outside of operating hours is redirected to call centers in other locations. Wyoming averages about 350 to 400 calls per month, said Summerville of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Centers. She added about half of those calls are answered by the two Wyoming lifelines and the other 50% are answered out of state.

Birkholz of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention noted there are delays while calls are transferred to other suicide lifeline centers, and time is precious.

“We know that the faster a call is answered, the better,” Birkholz said. “None of us want someone who is desperate and thinking about harming themselves to have to wait. Every second matters. When people have to be transferred to the national overflow centers, a long wait to do so could be devastating…We need 24/7 life-line coverage because suicidal crises can happen at any time.”

Summerville noted the governor’s $7 million request would have provided enough funding to cover two call centers for 24-7 coverage but that, based on the call volume, only one is needed.

She added $2.5 million is needed to fund a call center 24-7. With the $2.1 million requested and the $400,000 appropriated for the suicide hotline in the general budget, Summerville said the amount set aside is enough.

“We’re happy with the dollar amount,” she said. “We think we’ve got it in the right spot right now.”

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