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Wyoming's suicide rate remains second-highest in nation as experts urge end to stigma
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Wyoming's suicide rate remains second-highest in nation as experts urge end to stigma

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Suicide Prevention

Michael Hogan gives a presentation on his ideas for a health care system to prevent suicide during the 2015 Wyoming Suicide Prevention Conference in Casper. In 2018, Wyoming had the nation's second-highest suicide rate.

Wyoming had the second-highest suicide rate in the United States in 2018, according to data released earlier this month.

More than 25 Wyomingites out of every 100,000 died by suicide that year, a sweeping report by the American Association of Suicidology found. That was well above the national rate of 14.2 and barely trailed New Mexico, which had the highest rate in America. It was, however, lower than Wyoming’s rate in 2017, when the figure was more than 27 people per 100,000.

“It’s one of our top priorities, easily,” said Lindsey Martin, who leads the state Health Department branch tackling suicide. “We have been working with different state agencies like Game and Fish, Workforce Services and the Department of Corrections to see how we can partner together in our efforts to prevent suicide.”

According to the suicidology association, of those Wyomingites who died by suicide in 2018, more than 73 percent used a firearm — 108 out of 147 deaths. That’s the highest rate in the nation, 13 points ahead of Montana. Nationally, the percentage of suicides that involved guns was 50 percent.

Guns are more prevalent in Wyoming than almost anywhere; one report found that nearly 54 percent of residents had access to a gun, the highest rate in America.

“Nothing against guns, but it’s just saying — means is a big thing,” Martin said. “So if you attempt suicide by, let’s say, overdosing, there’s going to be that window of time to get you help. If you attempt with a firearm, there’s a lot less likely chance that there’s going to be any window to save you.”

According to state data, the highest rate of suicide in 2018 was those between 20 and 24 years old, though there were only 16 suicides in that age group. The numbers go up the older the demographic.

Wyoming’s high suicide rate is nothing new; the Equality State has been in the top five for suicide rates since 1996, when it was tied for sixth. Nor is the grim trend tied just to Wyoming. Much of the Mountain West struggles with the same issue: Montana is fourth, Idaho fifth, Colorado sixth, Nevada eighth and Utah ninth. If you count New Mexico and Alaska, which the suicidology association said was in the same group as those Western states, then the West accounts for eight of the nine states with the highest suicide rates.

Martin said the Mountain West has been called “the suicide belt.”

There’s a broad range of issues that can contribute to the high rate. For one, it may have something to do with the altitude. Isolation is another important piece. A culture of “cowboy-up” likely plays a role, as does low access to mental health care.

Martin said the state has been working in individual counties to promote prevention. Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti added that the agency spends “millions of dollars every year” to support community mental health systems that can provide mental health care on a sliding scale to those that need it.

The Legislature is considering another piece of suicide prevention: creating a hotline here for those in crisis. Currently, Wyoming is the only state in America without an in-state suicide prevention hotline. Instead, Wyomingites who call the national number are rerouted to a handful of backup call centers, which are out of state. Callers may be placed on hold for as long as half an hour, an eternity for a person considering suicide.

The Health Department asked lawmakers to set aside $1 million to establish the lifeline. Health officials told lawmakers in December that in both 2017 and 2018, more than 800 calls from Wyoming were dropped or went unanswered. Those calls that do get through aren’t advised on local opportunities for help because the operator isn’t familiar with Wyoming.

After initially recommending the $1 million ask be rejected, Gov. Mark Gordon wrote to lawmakers that he’d changed his thinking and that he recommended $400,000 to set up the hotline.

“I don’t know that we’d be able to get 24/7, 365 coverage for that,” Martin said of Gordon’s revised figure. “But right now, we’re at zero. So it would definitely be a huge step in the right direction.”

Bill Hawley, who works for the Wyoming chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the hotline was a crucial piece of what must be a larger solution to suicide here.

“We know that when someone is in a suicidal crisis, if they have someone with them, if they’re de-escalated, that crisis can go away and they might not die by suicide,” he said. “When there’s a conversation with someone, a trained operator at a call center, that situation’s de-escalated 98 percent of time.”

More broadly, Hawley said the state needed to tear down stigma. He said the word “mental” should be removed from “mental health” equation because the brain is an organ like the heart or the lungs.

“We had 148 family members, our friends, our colleagues, our loved ones die by suicide (in 2018),” he said. “That’s our concern. Here’s our hope: People who are struggling sometimes feel alone, and that’s a horrible place to be. When we share our stories, it turns out we’re really not alone.”

He said attacking the stigma requires “real, open, honest conversations in communities” about health and suicide. It requires keeping an eye on your friends, your classmates, your coworkers, and checking in on them before they hurt themselves.

“We want to get people as far upstream as possible, in that thinking stage, that struggling stage,” Hawley said, “before they get to the planning and certainly before they get to the acting.”

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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