Local officials and mental health advocates are wrangling with mental health in our community.
In addition to a stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health, our community and indeed the entire state of Wyoming suffers from a critical shortage of mental health care providers. In the northeastern part of the state in particular, there are not adequate facilities.
The suicide rate in Wyoming is perrenially the highest in the nation. Last year alone, 189 Wyomingites died by suicide, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. While the rest of the country saw a decline in suicide rate last year, Wyoming saw an increase.
In the story on page one about improving school safety, Johnson County and Prosecuting Attorney Tucker Ruby says that the state needs to spend about $50 million on mental health care — that is the magnitude of the challenge of providing accessible, effective and appropriate mental health care.
Like a physical health crisis, a mental health crisis can be devastating for individuals, families and communities. While an individual crisis cannot be fully predicted, as a state and local community, we can plan how to structure services and organize approaches to best meet the needs of those individuals who experience a mental health crisis. Too often that experience is met with delay or detainment. That creates an undue burden on the individual, law enforcement, emergency departments and justice systems.
With non-existent or inadequate crisis care, costs escalate due to an overdependence on restrictive, longer-term hospital stays, hospital readmissions, overuse of law enforcement and human tragedies that result from a lack of access to care.
In Johnson County, the “crisis system” has been unofficially handed over to law enforcement — this is not a job law enforcement officers are trained to do. The current approach to crisis care is patchwork and means that some people fall through the cracks, resulting in multiple hospital readmissions, self medicating with drugs or alcohol, trauma to families and untreated mental illness that may lead to suicide.
None of this is news to the mental health care providers, physicians, law enforcement personnel or prevention agencies in the area. But with the potential to secure federal coronavirus relief funds for medical infrastructure, there is hope that an emergency psychiatric assessment, treatment and healing unit could be built in Sheridan.
We applaud the cooperative and collaborative effort of Johnson and Sheridan counties to secure federal funds. We implore state leaders to focus more attention and money on mental health. While there is no quick-fix to Wyoming’s mental health crisis, adequate funding and infrastructure are steps in the right direction.