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Wyoming adopts 988 suicide hotline, seeks more funding

CHEYENNE —Ralph Neider-Westerman is executive director of Wyoming Lifeline, one of two suicide and crisis call centers in the state.

He knows what it means to live in a very rural place. He knows exactly why calls made by Wyomingites in crisis must be answered by people in Wyoming.

“I answered a call several months ago, and it was from a woman who, as is typical, said she was not suicidal, but she had several things going on,” Neider-Westerman recalled in an interview this week. “She had health issues and other things going on, but then she said, ‘But you don’t know what it’s like, because you don’t know what it’s like to live in a small town.’”

“Well, I said, ‘I live in Greybull.’ She didn’t know she was reaching somebody in Wyoming. She said, ‘You know exactly what it is like. I’m in Cody.’ I wanted to say that Cody is the big city I go to to go shopping,” he said.

Wyoming Lifeline staff answered 111 calls in the month of July. They missed 16 because staff was already on a call. State officials say missed calls are still answered, they are routed out of state.

On July 16, centers all over the U.S. transitioned from a 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to 988. It’s an easy-to-remember three-digit number for round-the-clock crisis care.

The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 authorized 988 as a new three-digit number for suicide and mental health crisis. All telephone service and text providers in the U.S. were required by a federal regulator to activate 988 no later than July 16.

The previous number is still in operation, said Kim Deti, spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Health, and the transition to a 988 number is one piece in an ongoing effort to expand mental health services in Wyoming.

“Overall, we have a mental health reform project we’ve been working on for several years. Funding is an ongoing concern, but we also spend a lot of state general funds to ensure that there is access to services for people in Wyoming,” she said.

Neider-Westerman explained that Wyoming Lifeline is funded by a for-profit parent group, Waller Hall Research, also in Greybull, as well as with grant and private funding.

Wyoming Lifeline has five employees, two of whom are not paid for by the parent company. It has received two grants from the federal government, one for $32,000 for 988 implementation, and another for $60,000 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for implementation and staffing.

“On top of that, we have gotten funds from friends and family, but our major source of outside funding has been the Episcopal Archdiocese of Wyoming,” Neider-Westerman said.

In the spring, state lawmakers earmarked $2.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars for a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week suicide prevention hotline.

Deti said there is a request for proposals awaiting sign-off from the Department of Health in the works for that funding.

“We plan to use that money to make sure those services are available for a few years,” she said. “We’re going to use it to make sure that Wyoming-based services are available 24 hours a day, for at least the next couple of years.”

Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers Executive Director Andi Summerville said Monday as people become more familiar with 988, the call volume will likely increase.

Estimates vary from a modest 15% increase to an “eye popping” 60% increase, she said.

Right now, a bare minimum number of trained staff exist in Wyoming to answer these calls.

Staff in Greybull answer calls from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to Neider-Westerman, and people in Casper answer 988 calls from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Lawmakers in Wyoming have the ability to attach a fee to every phone bill for 988 services, similar to 911 fees Wyomingites already pay, Summerville said.

As of April 2021, 911 fees in Wyoming were 25 cents to 75 cents for wireline or wireless services, according to the 9-1-1 Association.

The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee has listed 988 suicide lifeline funding ninth on its list of interim topics for the year.

The committee did not discuss 988 funding at its first meeting in April and will meet again in Casper Sept. 14-15.

“This will be in front of the legislative Revenue Committee later this fall,” Summerville said. “And we are still looking for additional dollars in private funding, etc., to put toward this effort. It is really important for Wyoming to build the capacity that we need for this 24/7 coverage, so that we have the resources for all calls to be answered.”

Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, who is also a Revenue Committee member, noted Wyoming’s extremely high suicide rate.

“I believe Wyoming was recently quoted as having a suicide rate that is more than double the national average,” he wrote in an email to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “We need to ensure funding for both the 988 line, as well as our mental health services across the board. We’ve cut that funding in the last few budgets, and I would like to see it reversed.”

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who also is the Revenue Committee co-chairman, said he does support funding for the 988 system, but not through a tax on phone bills.

“Suicide prevention is a public good,” he said, but phone services are “some of the most heavily taxed services in the nation.”

“There are a lot of burdening demands for taxes on telephones. 911 services in Wyoming are very expensive, in part, because local authorities refuse to consider consolidation of public safety answering points. 911 should also be funded more generally, and not with a tax on phone services,” Case said.

Neider-Westerman said that the ARPA funding, if awarded to the two existing centers, could mean financial security for a few years while everyone grapples with how to pay for 988 long-term.

“There needs to be a public-private partnership, whereby we will continue to need to raise funds through organizations through the Episcopal Church and United Way,” he said. “But the seed money really does need to come from the state.”

This story was published on July 22, 2022.