Wyoming Records Most Drug Overdoses in Years as Community Leaders Discuss Mental Health Issues

State also recorded a new high for its suicide rate as stakeholders point to shortage of mental health professionals

Pictured left to right: Dan Dockstader, Gov. Mark Gordon, Eric Barlow, Matthew Castano and Rob Anda discuss mental health issues in Wyoming during an event at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper on Tuesday. (Wyoming Truth photo by Shen Wu Tan)

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming recorded its highest number of drug overdoses since 2012, along with rising rates of mental health issues, as community leaders and stakeholders this week discussed ways to address what they dubbed the state’s “mental health crisis.”

State health data provided to the Wyoming Truth shows that 108 Wyoming residents died from drug overdoses in 2021 — 65 involved opioids, 44 involved methamphetamine and 43 involved fentanyl. The second-highest number of drug overdoses recorded since 2012 was in 2014, when the Wyoming Department of Health reported 107 deaths. In 2020, 100 residents died from drug overdoses, data shows. Wyoming’s suicide rate also hit a record high in 2021.

“When looking at whether we have a mental health crisis from the perspective of the courts, it’s pretty obvious we do,” said Matthew Castano, District Court Judge for the Sixth Judicial District who spoke at Gov. Mark Gordon’s mental health summit on Tuesday. “The other issue with regard to mental health…is the increased prevalence of opioids in our community, specifically fentanyl… It’s becoming more and more prevalent, and we are losing people on a regular basis.”

During his re-election campaign, Gordon has emphasized the importance of addressing mental health in Wyoming, including providing temporary funds to expand suicide prevention services.

“We know that there is so much more that we can do,” Gordon told the audience at the summit, “and it’s not just a matter of what we can do in the legislature, it’s not just a matter of resources, it’s a matter of really joining together as a state and finding the various solutions.”

The governor shared personal anecdotes about mental health during his introductory remarks. He spoke about a Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and his daughter’s classmate who took his own life in seventh grade.

“There is a hunger in Wyoming to address these issues,” Gordon said. “It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s our problem. And we can step forward and we can solve it.”

In addition to recording the greatest number of drug overdoses in a decade, Wyoming also reported the highest suicide rate since 2004—the year that the state health department started publishing data. The state recorded 189 suicides, or 32.8 suicides per 100,000 individuals, in 2021, preliminary data provided to the Wyoming Truth shows. The state’s suicide rate is more than double the nationwide rate of 13.5 suicides per 100,000 people. The 2021 suicide rate is up from the 30.6 rate recorded by the health department for 2020.

Additional figures from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 88,000 adults in Wyoming have a mental health condition, while about 40% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.

The alliance, which pulled data available in Feb. 2021, also reported that 19.3% of adults were unable to access essential counseling or therapy services and that 561,187 people in Wyoming live in a community that lacks enough mental health professionals. The U.S. Census Bureau reported a population of 576,851 for Wyoming in 2020, meaning that about 97% of residents live in an area with a shortage of mental health professionals.

There are about 130 psychologists licensed in Wyoming, according to Hollis Hackman, legislative chair for the Wyoming Psychological Association who also spoke at the mental health summit.

Bruce Burkland, executive director of Wyoming Youth Services Association, also noted the shortage.

“Wyoming always had some difficulties in terms of having enough providers and having access to care and a general belief that people should be able to take care of themselves,” he said during a panel discussion. “It leaves more isolation and disconnection for the young people. We’ve also had budget difficulties at the state level that’s required some cuts. And then we had COVID. And the end result for any of our programs is just being short on staff and having difficulties refilling those positions.”

To bring light to mental health issues, Wyoming PBS is airing a documentary series about the crisis featuring residents throughout the state. It has aired two of six episodes, the first of which it aired at the mental health summit.

“We are our neighbors’ keepers, our brothers’ keepers, our sisters’ keepers,” Gordon told the audience. “We need to continually work to find what resources that could…bring to bear to ease that burden…We just have to remember humanity…so today, we can start to pursue a healthier mental health state.”

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