SHERIDAN — At the four soda ash mines in southwest Wyoming, seven miners have taken their own lives in the past five years, said state Rep. Jon Conrad, R-Mountain View.
In that same period, there were no deaths from accidents, making suicide the greatest safety risk at Wyoming mines. Conrad called it mining’s secret threat.
“The industry is seeing an unprecedented amount of suicides,” Conrad said Friday during a presentation at the Wyoming Mining Association Convention.
Conrad encouraged those working in the mining industry to look out for each other and recognize the symptoms of a coworker who may be in crisis.
One thing noticed in the cases of suicide from the past several years, Conrad said, is the miners took steps to find someone to take care of their pets before they took their own lives.
“We see a consistent pattern where people who have committed suicide will take care of their animals before they actually before they, unfortunately, commit the act,” Conrad said.
Hopelessness Kills Them
With Wyoming leading the nation in per capita suicides overall, Conrad said it’s unlikely any Wyomingite isn’t impacted.
“Everyone in this room knows of someone who has committed suicide. Think about that,” Conrad said.
Among those is Pat Joyce, assistant director of the Wyoming Mining Association. Joyce lost a fiance and another member of her family to suicide. She said a lot of the problem comes from the cowboy culture that is a part of Wyoming, but in tough jobs like miners have, there’s a strong sense they have to play through the pain.
“All they had to do was to reach out. Somebody would have helped him,” Joyce said. “They get down and they feel helpless. They think they don't count. They count to everybody, but they don't know that. And that hopelessness is what kills them every time.”
Conrad said that, according to Centers For Disease Control and Prevention data, people working in the mining and petroleum industries see the highest rates of suicide of any field.
He said a lack of awareness of the problem is making it especially difficult to address.
To illustrate this, Conrad went to the Mining Safety and Health Administration website and the search function brings up only one mention of suicide, which is information on how to determine if a suicide can be counted statistically as an accident.
Within extractive industries, as they’re called, are demographics with high rates of suicide. It’s predominantly white males, and men are four times more likely to take their own lives than women.
And in these jobs there’s a culture, Conrad said, that says “dry your eyes and man up, princess.”
But the need for help is there, he said, and the miners know it.
Conrad is director of governmental affairs for Tata Chemicals Soda Ash Partners in Green River. At a location where employees pass by before entering the mine, Conrad said he puts a stack of cards with information about the state’s 988 suicide hotline. Every couple months he has to replenish the stack.
Conrad encouraged people in the industry to notice coworkers who are showing signs of an extended period of depression and try to get them to talk or seek help. Likewise, he encouraged those who are contemplating suicide to seek help.
There are two Wyoming call centers that 988 calls in the state are routed to. Since 2020, the centers have fielded 10,000 calls.
In this year’s legislative session, the House Revenue Committee sponsored a bill to set up a $46 million trust to support the call centers after federal support runs out. The bill met opposition from lawmakers who questioned if the call centers were effective at preventing suicide, Conrad said, and if such services were a proper role for government.
Proponents of the trust tried to appease opposition with a $6 million trust, but ultimately the bill passed, but the trust wasn’t funded.
In an interview, Conrad said the opponents wanted data showing the centers worked, which he said is difficult to come by because it’s impossible to track outcomes of these anonymous calls.
“If you're looking for data that says there are 500 people that call the 988 suicide hotline and 499 did not commit suicide, we'll never see that,” he said.
Conrad said a 22% decrease in the number of suicides between 2021 and 2022, which he attributes in part to the hotline, demonstrates the service helps.
Kevin Killough can be reached at Kevin@cowboystatedaily.com.