Guest Column: Why Conservatives Are Wary Of Federal Solutions, From Land Disputes To Suicide Hotlines

Rep. Pepper Ottman writes, "To insinuate to someone impacted by suicide that had they simply paid a little more in taxes, they wouldn’t have suffered the loss that they suffered is more than deeply offensive, and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of mental health and wellness."

Rep. Pepper Ottman

April 21, 20234 min read

Rep Pepper Ottman
Rep Pepper Ottman (Matt Idler)

President Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address put it best: government is not the solution to our problems- government is the problem. 

In Wyoming, we are proud of our independence and rightfully wary of federal intrusion. We’ve known as early as 1892, that solutions sent from D.C. tend to cause more harm than good.

It was then that Wyoming’s governor asked the president to send federal troops into Johnson County to resolve a deeply local and deeply complicated series of land disputes, leaving the locals to clean up the mess and pay the bill left by the feds. Legend has it that the Johnson County War is what caused the people of Wyoming to lack trust in the federal government. 

Most debates in the Wyoming Legislature center around the proper role of government, sometimes lasting hours. Perhaps no issue is more worthy of thoughtful consideration than suicide prevention.

It goes without saying that no reasonable person would disagree that suicide prevention is critically important. Reasonable people can, however, honestly disagree about how best to prevent suicide. 

As a private citizen, former educator, and current legislator, I am keenly aware of the mental health issues our state faces. I visit with local mental health providers and as a previous member of the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee have spent time observing local and state mental health facilities.

I've heard hours of heartfelt debate on how to improve mental health and prevent suicide. At one time I worked at the State Home in Grand Junction, CO.

In distilled form, one side argues that the government can solve issues of mental health. The other posits that the government cannot solve issues of the soul, despite its best intentions. 

At the Governor’s Mental Health Summit on April 18, legislators who favored the latter argument were castigated as bringing a “pestilence” into Wyoming.

According to our governor, holding an honest belief that Uncle Sam lacks the ability to fix the intimate and gut-wrenching issue of suicidal ideation is akin to spreading a contagious or infectious, devastating epidemic disease. 

Ordinarily, calling those who disagree on how to solve an important issue “pestilences” would be called out by the media as uncivil- especially when discussing a topic as sensitive as mental health. 

Comments at the summit were focused largely on the legislature’s decision not to fund a National 988 Suicide Hotline trust fund. Readers should note that the 988 Hotline is a national hotline supported overwhelmingly by federal dollars, is available 24/7, and that the Biden Administration one year ago increased ongoing federal funding for it  twelve-fold

This is where most Wyomingites start to raise their eyebrows. What have these federal dollars brought to the 988 Hotline? 

Last fall the Department of Health and Human Services implemented a new feature embedded within the 988 Hotline: an option for minor callers to be routed directly to specialists in gender transition counseling and treatments by pressing “3” while on the line. 

According to the only known long-term study of the mental wellbeing of transgender individuals post-reassignment treatment, those with gender dysphoria, after reassignment, have considerably higher risks for suicidal behavior than the general population.

Our distrust of federal solutions is well warranted.  Why would we help fund an already funded hotline that guides young people down a path statistically proven to worsen mental health outcomes? 

Instead, we must examine why people turn to suicide. While that question cannot be adequately answered in a column, most would assume that suicidal ideation is the result of feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, job loss, financial instability, illness, grief, purposelessness, loss, traumatic stress, or severe depression. 

As righteous as our intentions in government may be, Uncle Sam cannot cure these feelings. To insinuate to someone impacted by suicide that had they simply paid a little more in taxes, they wouldn’t have suffered the loss that they suffered is more than deeply offensive, and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of mental health and wellness. 

Discussions of suicide prevention will continue in Wyoming, and rightfully so. When engaging on this topic, we should all remember the following: 

Everyone at the table is after the same goal, even if they disagree about how to get there.

Money alone will not solve the problem of suicide.

Government cannot fix all societal problems. 

Rep. Pepper Ottman
Ottman represents Wyoming House District 34

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Rep. Pepper Ottman