Matt Stech of Teton County’s Prevention Management Organization (PMO) picked up a gun lock from a pile of boxes on the floor and pulled off a flier that he’d stapled to the packaging. The flier displayed the National Suicide Hotline, Wyoming’s Crisis Text Line, and contact information for the local PMO. Stech has used most of the basement office for storage since his colleague left earlier this spring. Together, they had been distributing the locks around Jackson, stacking them in clear plastic boxes marked “Free”.
The gun locks are meant to reduce suicides and other gun related incidents. Stech also saw them as a chance to engage with the community. In the future, he will be spending less time distributing gun locks because the Wyoming State Legislature eliminated funding for suicide prevention efforts during the last session.
“I’ve been allowed, within reason, some time to facilitate suicide prevention,” Stech said. “But my primary focus is going to be alcohol, opioids, and tobacco prevention. And that’s where I have an operating budget.”
In addition to losing his partner, who would have focused on suicide prevention efforts in Teton County, Stech is losing his office.
“That will create some challenges because I live in a small studio apartment because it’s Jackson, Wyoming, and I don’t have room for thousands of prevention materials that are in this office,” Stech said.
Stech’s colleagues across the state are going through the same kind of thing, after lawmakers cut $2 million in suicide prevention funding due to the loss of state revenue. All of Wyoming’s suicide prevention specialists will lose their jobs on July 1st.
Terresa Humphries-Wadsworth directs suicide operations for the PMO, which Wyoming contracts to organize prevention programs in each county. This year, the state dropped their contract for suicide prevention, and created just two statewide positions within the Department of Health. Although alcohol and drug abuse programs rely mostly on tobacco settlements and federal dollars, suicide prevention activities come out of Wyoming’s general fund – the pool of money that legislators divide among state programs.
In her last few weeks on the job, Humphries-Wadsworth is frantically trying to document the services that are available in each community, in hopes that the state can still address suicide. She said a new initiative called the Zero Suicide program, which helps health care facilities change their practices to more actively support patients, may help.
“Internally, what are their own policies for identifying somebody who’s at risk for suicide? Are they screening every patient, or are they waiting for a patient to come in and volunteer that this is something that they are struggling with?” Humphries-Wadsworth said.
Zero Suicide also encourages hospitals and medical centers to follow up with people who they have treated for a suicide attempt or another form of self-injury. In May, PMO sponsored an event called the Zero Suicide Academy to share those guidelines with health care organizations from around Wyoming. Stech attended that training, and he is also leading workshops to teach people about post-vention – a set of strategies for supporting a community after a suicide has occurred. Stech thinks the program will be helpful in places like Teton County.
“The way I think about it, certain suicides echo across this valley, because people are really connected, and it’s tragic,” Stech said. “A good post-vention response reduces their suffering and then also reduces the risk that there may be more suicides in the community.”
The Department of Health’s Erica Mathews is looking for grant money for these and other programs. Mathews and others are concerned that losing local specialists will lead to more suicides.And while measuring success is more complicated than tracking the incidence of suicide, Mathews said Wyoming’s rate could be a sign of progress – it has held stable as national rates have climbed.
“We are double the national suicide rate pretty much, but we’re not increasing. If we start seeing that increasing, we’ll know that we need to change our strategies,” Mathews said.
Teton County’s Stech sees prevention work as a spectrum between making one-on-one connections and advocating for policies. He doesn’t know how to measure his impact when he spends hours stapling fliers or delivering gun locks, but he’s heard at least once that those efforts helped someone.
“We have gotten one report of a gun lock being used in a potential domestic violence situation,” Stech said.
The would-be victim had picked up a free gun lock and checked in with law enforcement to make sure it was positioned correctly.
“Then apparently later, the person went to access the firearm and was unable to do so,” Stech said. “Whether that was for suicide or homicide or both, we don’t know. That’s the kind of thing that – it makes you go to work.”
Even with less money, Stech said that communities will have to continue to work to address the issues that lead to suicide. Especially since Wyoming’s relatively flat rate is still one of the highest in the nation.