The Rev. Doug Wasinger doesn’t remember the date, but he remembers the message. It was startling, like jumping into a cold pool. It was given at the annual convention of the Episcopal Churches of Wyoming. The Right Rev. John Smylie, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming, stepped up to the microphone.
“There is a scourge in Wyoming, and it needs to be addressed,” Smylie said. “It’s called suicide.”
For the past three years, the diocese has promoted a faith-based approach to suicide prevention across the state. The diocese saw those prevention efforts as a calling.
Wyoming continually ranks among the top five states with the highest suicide rate. Why that’s the case isn’t fully understood, but what suicide prevention specialists do know is that the suicide rate falls when communities have a strong support system.
Earlier this year, the Wyoming Legislature cut Wyoming Health Department prevention-related funding by $2 million. In turn, the department was forced to cut funds for community-based suicide prevention services.
Last month, the diocese stepped up to the plate, according to Bill Hawley, a community prevention specialist with the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming and a member of the Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition. Through its nonprofit foundation, the diocese earmarked $100,000 for suicide prevention training over the next year, a portion of which will be used in Johnson County.
“Providing training on recognizing the warning signs of suicide and how to get help for someone at risk is a crucial component of suicide prevention,” said Keith Hotle, Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming CEO. “While the PMO no longer has money to purchase training materials, we do have a highly trained staff in communities across Wyoming who are certified in a number of suicide prevention and early intervention training skill models. The financial support offered through the Foundation for the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming will allow us to continue offering these critical trainings.”
Smylie said that suicide prevention is a core issue for the church, and they were compelled to help save lives.
“As a community of faith, we pray our support and outreach will help end the epidemic of suicide in this state and comfort those affected by suicide, both within the church and in our communities,” Smylie said.
Hawley said that suicide prevention is everyone’s business, not just the business of therapists, counselors and health care providers. That’s why the PMO has spent hundreds of hours training individuals across the state in QPR – Question, Persuade and Refer – and ASIST – Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, he said. Both trainings are meant to give people the tools to ask the question: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” QPR is more of a gatekeeper training, Hawley said, while ASIST is more in-depth and provides intervention techniques.
The Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition’s training team is closing in on training nearly 1,000 people in Johnson County in QPR since 2012. Hawley said doing so has built a safety net.
“The more people trained with the same skillset, the better we will be at preventing the most preventable cause of death in Wyoming,” Hawley said.
A portion of funds from the foundation could be used to conduct an ASIST or QPR training in Buffalo. Hawley said the trainings have proven to work.
“I can honestly say that within a week or two weeks after probably 75 percent of the trainings I have taught, whether it’s QPR or ASIST, I get a phone call or an email from a participant who says that because of what they’ve learned, they were able to ask the question,” Hawley said. “Because of what they’ve learned, they were able to ASIST and get someone the help they needed when they were in crisis. Rarely does a week go by where a participant doesn’t call and ask for some kind of help.”
Wasinger has taken the ASIST course. He said it was enlightening and encouraging watching the participants come together with a common goal – to reduce suicide in Johnson County.
“We all had a shared experience and a shared language,” Wasinger said. “I could talk to a counselor or a law enforcement officer. We are all working from the same shared language, and for me, it’s amazing to see the different disciplines all working together – all for a greater cause.”
Wasinger said he wouldn’t be surprised if the foundation continues to fund suicide prevention efforts across the state.
“The government can only do so much, so what’s stopping us from doing what we can do?” Wasinger said. “It’s exciting. It shows we are capable of doing some big things if we get out of our boxes and work together. We can do this, and it’s really about all of us.”
For Hawley, the foundation’s provision of the funds is leading by example, and for that, he said, he’s thankful.
“When funding cuts were happening, the church was committed,” Hawley said. “It means that they have passionate ownership in doing what they can to raise awareness and reduce the stigma. It’s important to be kinder than necessary. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about, and any way we can create conversations about mental health, that’s good.”
Since the PMO was established in 2012, more than 45,000 people in Wyoming have been trained in suicide prevention.
Organizations and individuals across the state can fill out a funding request form through the foundation.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). If you know someone is in immediate danger, call 911; Northern Wyoming Mental Health at 684-5531; text WYO to 741741, the Wyoming Crisis Text Line; or chat online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.