By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
Wyoming mental health care officials are asking residents to contact their legislators to urge them to action in addressing the state’s mental health care system, which they said is currently in “crisis.”
Heath Steele, president of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, said his group is very concerned about the status of mental health care and services in the state.
“Mental healthcare in our state is in crisis. Wyoming is the worst ranked state, at 29.8 deaths due to intentional self-harm per 100,000 population, twice the national average,” said Steele, who is also executive vice president of operations for Volunteers of America of the Northern Rockies. “The system is stressed with more than 28,000 Wyoming citizens accessing state funded mental healthcare last year. That is in addition to those Wyoming citizens who used insurance or were able to private pay for services.”
Steele said the problems in mental health care in Wyoming can be tracked to a lack of funding and staff to provide services.
“This crisis was not caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, but it has certainly been exacerbated by COVID-19,” Steele said. “Perpetually underfunded and understaffed, mental healthcare providers in all 23 counties of Wyoming are finding it harder than ever to provide adequate care for the increased rates of substance abuse, mental health disorders, and other behavioral health issues.”
Steele noted that while Volunteers of America was “blessed” to have staff members who are passionate, motivated and dedicated to serving those in need, they were also exhausted due to working long hours for little pay.
“Federal funding has been provided through the CARES Act, but it was restricted in a way that created more work for programs and staff,” Steele said. “By adding beds with leased quarantine units, programs were able to respond to the crisis created by the pandemic. But this type of response, one that creates more work for front-line staff, results in COVID fatigue and is unsustainable in the long term, doing nothing to reform a broken system.”
He added a state investment into system-wide reform, rather than further cuts in mental health care spending, are needed on the part of legislators.
He said the state cannot afford to put its mental health care systems on the “back burner” any longer.
“We need to invest in system-wide reform, instead of further cutting the budget,” he said. “We need to educate and retain Wyoming youth who are interested in becoming mental health experts. We need to understand that providing Wyoming citizens with much-needed mental health services will decrease Title 25 holds, incarceration and even the state’s suicide rates.”
He encouraged Wyoming residents to reach out to their legislators and let them know mental health care needed to be one of their top priorities in the next legislative session.
WAMHSAC will be advocating for several issues during the next session, including supporting using funds from the general fund budget to support people in various degrees of crisis and to have a suicide hotline that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.