Wyoming has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country … nearly twice the national average. Until recently, efforts at preventing suicide were left up to individual counties. But now, the state is trying a new tactic which they hope will save more lives. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.
WILLOW BELDEN: Danielle was 14 when she tried to kill herself. Her real name isn’t Danielle, but she wanted to remain anonymous for this story. As a teen, she felt extremely isolated. Her parents and siblings rarely spent time together, and when they did, they often fought. Her relationship with her mother was especially difficult.
DANIELLE: She would ask me, ‘Are you OK today?’ But her response when I’d say, ‘No, I had a bad day,’ wasn’t to be sympathetic and listen even if she didn’t want to; it was always of aggravation and frustration. Almost like, ‘I know that you’re having a hard time, but so am I.’
BELDEN: Things came to a head one day when Danielle’s mother refused to let her visit her boyfriend.
DANIELLE: And I got so mad that the only thing I could think to do was go to my room and down a bottle of Tylenol.
BELDEN: Danielle ended up being fine. But she says her suicide attempt was very hard on the family. And she says it probably could have been averted.
DANIELLE: One of the best things that people can do is just be educated on the signs of people who are likely to hurt themselves. Because I was definitely exhibiting them, as were many of my friends, and nobody stopped any of them. Nobody even mentioned anything.
BELDEN: Educating people about warning signs is a cornerstone of Wyoming’s new state-wide effort at suicide prevention. What they’re trying to do is institute a uniform prevention effort across the whole state. To implement that, the Health Department has hired regional suicide prevention coordinators, who will work with mental health professionals and others in each community on suicide prevention efforts.
The initiative is being headed up by Terresa Humphries-Wadsworth, who is the state suicide prevention coordinator. She says in the past, they treated suicide as a series of isolated events. Now, they’re treating it as a state-wide public health problem.
TERRESA HUMPHRIES-WADSWORTH: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for our young people. If we suddenly had a flu that was the second leading cause of death, people would be up in their arms and doing everything they could to prevent that flu. Well, suicide is preventable.
BELDEN: Humphries-Wadsworth and her colleagues are conducting training sessions across the state for teachers, school administrators … and everyday citizens. They’re explaining how to recognize warning signs, and what to do if you see them. They’re even testing out an online training program for healthcare providers.
HUMPHRIES-WADSWORTH: When someone doesn’t walk in the door and say, ‘I’m suicidal, doc, I need help’ – honestly they don’t come in with that message. They come in with, ‘I can’t sleep,’ or ‘I’m in terrible pain,’ or ‘I’ve lost all my energy.’
BELDEN: Most agree that Wyoming’s high suicide rate is partly a result of cultural norms. Keith Hotle heads the suicide prevention effort at the Wyoming Department of Health. He says many Wyomingites – especially men – don’t seek help if they’re in distress, because they’ve been raised with the idea that they should “cowboy up” and handle their problems themselves.
KEITH HOTLE: The flip side of that is so much of our state is rural and people know each other. And so if you live in Lusk, Wyoming, and your pickup truck is parked in front of the mental health center, folks are going to know.
BELDEN: Hotle says they hope to chip away at the stigma of asking for help. They especially want to reach out to middle-aged men, who have the highest suicide rate. One TV ad they’re running in Park County shows a man standing in a gas station convenience store…
AD: Surrounded by strangers. I’ve never felt so isolated, so alone. Can anyone hear me?
BELDEN: The ad ends with a number for a 24-7 depression hotline.
Hotle says in addition to trying to get people help … they also want to keep suicidal individuals away from weapons. Two-thirds of suicides in Wyoming are by firearm, and Hotle says friends, family members – and even firearm retailers – need to watch out for signs that someone might be in crisis …. and then take away their gun until they’re in a better mindset.
HOTLE: It’s like friends don’t let friends don’t drive drunk. … You know, don’t give somebody the keys to a highly lethal vehicle traveling at God only knows what speed. And so it’s kind of the same thing.
BELDEN: So, will Wyoming’s approach actually result in fewer suicides? Bob Gebbia (GEB-biya) with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says the state’s strategy sounds like a good one … but it’s hard to know for sure.
BOB GEBBIA: There isn’t a lot of study of this, and therefore we don’t have as many evidence-based interventions and strategies. I wish we did.
BELDEN: Gebbia adds that getting people to accept help is only part of the equation. Help also has to be available … and Wyoming, like many rural areas, lacks mental health professionals. But the state’s suicide prevention team says they have a plan for that, too. They hope to train rural medical providers to offer mental health care … which would make mental health expertise available in more remote areas of the state. And they’re optimistic that within a few years, there will be a noticeable decline in suicides. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.