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A new day in treating Wyoming mental illness

A new day in treating Wyoming mental illness

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A news story entitled “Dark family secret unravels in Cheyenne” (Casper Star-Tribune, Oct. 13) is a thought-provoking tale of a father who killed his 17-year-old daughter who was apparently schizophrenic in 1937, when treatment of mental illness was nothing like it is today.

When Suzanne Handler decided to research the truth of stories that her grandfather had killed her aunt and then the family covered it up, she discovered a story that is almost unimaginable today. Almost.

Teenager Sally Levin’s behavior began to worry her family in the 1930s, when even the language for mental illness was different. She was diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” which is apparently close to today’s schizophrenia.

Family stories recounted her trying to burn the house down, and then pleading with her father to kill her.

In a shocking development, her father Sam took her out to land that is now on the Warren Air Force Base, where he shot and killed her, then tried to kill himself, only to survive two self-inflicted gunshot wounds and a stab wound.

He was tried and received a suspended sentence, family members left Cheyenne for California and the story of Sally Levin stayed secret for the next 54 years.

It took a niece’s resolve to track down the truth about her family to bring the story to light in a book published last year, “The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing That Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family.”

Set against that story, it’s useful to analyze how Wyoming handles its mentally ill youth today.

The answer is, in part, discouraging.

Despite the creation of treatment centers in regions of the state and school-based counseling, the need for treatment in Wyoming’s small towns can be largely unmet due to rural health care challenges.

All counties in Wyoming are geographically designated mental health services shortage areas.

At times in the past 10 years there have been efforts to improve access to mental health care.

A Select Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services was created by the Wyoming Legislature to evaluate how well mental illness is treated in the state. In 2009 the committee successfully introduced and passed legislation appropriating just under $1 million for mental health crisis stabilization services in two regions, the Basin and Southeast regions.

The legislation also identified five regions in the state for regionalized funding for mental health and substance abuse services.

One clear step forward from how young Sally Levin was treated in 1937 is that mental illness in children is now being discussed and measured.

In 2011-12 the Annie E. Casey Foundation identified 22,000 Wyoming children, 18 percent, as “Children ages 2 to 17 with a parent who reports that a doctor has told them their child has autism, developmental delays, depression or anxiety, ADD/ADHD, or behavioral/conduct problems.”

This is many steps forward from what happened in Cheyenne in 1937 when a teenaged girl was killed and her story lost for a half century.

Just last month, her niece took steps to remember her, adding a new marker to her long-forgotten grave in Cheyenne.

A grave marker and a book now mark her life.

For the teenagers living in Wyoming now with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses, much better is expected and often delivered. And while awareness and treatment options took leaps forward, the state still must wrestle with its shortage of providers for young people with mental health challenges, 76 years after Sally Levin’s murder in Cheyenne.


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