Wyo4News staff, [email protected]
November 30, 2023 —
Governor Mark Gordon’s series of Town Hall meetings meant to address mental health care in the state continued on Wednesday with his appearance at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs. The Director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, Korin Schmidt, and Wyoming State Representative Lloyd Larson also joined the Governor on stage.
The Governor began the Town Hall by acknowledging that the industrial counties of Sweetwater County and Campbell County have had the highest rates of suicide in the state. The Governor spoke about how he signed the HB0065 – 988 suicide prevention bill into law in Feb. 2023, which is a hotline that offers 24/7 call, text, and chat access to trained Wyoming-based crisis counselors. The Governor also acknowledged the fact that there has been a lack of funding for the 988 suicide prevention service and for other mental health services in the state.
The Director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, Korin Schmidt, spoke about how the communities are where the problems in mental health really get solved and how the State can provide funding, but at the end of the day, “What happens locally has the greatest impact on children and families.” Schmidt went on to say that the Department of Family Services has been trying to think more deliberately about the department’s role in focusing on supporting local efforts, such as faith-based communities around prevention and intervention.
Four individuals then gave their written testimonies about their experiences with the mental health care system in the state of Wyoming. Three of the four testimonies that were given highlighted the success of the treatment courts in Wyoming, which provide people with mental health services, mainly with drug and alcohol treatment, rather than going through the judicial system. These speakers spoke about how the treatment courts helped stop the cycle of going into and out of jail for crimes linked to their drug and alcohol abuse and how they are now able to lead productive lives.
The other testimony, written by resident Tammi Orr, explained to the audience how she has struggled with mental health issues her whole life and how several of her family members struggled with some of the same inherited mental health disorders as well. She spoke about how hard it was for her to find a qualified mental health professional to treat her condition in the state of Wyoming and how she had to search for, and eventually found, a provider that could treat her, but the provider was out of state.
Orr acknowledged that when it comes to drug and alcohol treatment in the state of Wyoming, there are a lot of good programs out there, but when it comes to other mental health disorders, it can be very challenging to find a qualified mental health care provider. She suggested that the state could possibly team up with some of these out-of-state facilities to help provide these services that aren’t available in Wyoming, such as the Huntsman Mental Health Institute in Utah, where she was finally able to find help for her condition.
After the testimonies had concluded, Governor Gordon explained that the lack of funding for mental health care in Wyoming is because, in 2020, Wyoming saw a drop in about 1/3 of its revenue. Gordon also said that a lot of that was largely due to COVID-19, as well as a drop in production industries such as Sweetwater County’s trona, oil and gas, and coal industries. But the governor also acknowledged that those losses in revenue have not been decreasing even though the COVID-19 crisis has mostly passed and that the state continues to have challenges with its revenue going forward.
“The federal government stepped up in the middle of COVID-19 and sent a lot of money to the states to deploy. There were lots of cuts that had to be made in 2020, and those cuts are still pretty much on the books,” said Gordon.
The Governor then asked Wyoming State Representative Lloyd Larson to speak about how, legislatively, they are trying to define what the state’s role is in addressing mental health concerns in Wyoming. Larson spoke about how former Governor Matt Mead convened a task force back in 2014 to look at Wyoming’s mental health facilities and how the task force came back with recommendations for the reconstruction of the State Hospital and Wyoming Life Resource Center, which has been completed.
Larson also spoke about how the task force reached out to local community health organizations and asked them to list what they saw as mental health care priorities, which was the foundation of the state of Wyoming’s Mental Health Re-design. He said that with the help of those organizations, “I think we came up with a very good policy.” However, Larson explained that during the 2020 funding cuts, about $112 million in cuts were made to the Department of Health, and there were 10-15% cuts to Medicaid reimbursement.
Larson explained that now that there is more money in the upcoming budget, in the next legislative session, there are conversations that are going to take place that will hopefully get the program that Governor Mead’s task force developed back to where it was before those 2020 budget cuts.
Although this meeting was announced as “open to the public and aimed at fostering open conversations with community members,” and stated that they “had engaged in honest, direct face-to-face communication at their first two town halls, and encouraged residents of southwest Wyoming to take part in these vital conversations.” There was actually no time left for public comments or questions at this Town Hall meeting after the speakers were finished.
When asked about the lack of public comments and questions at this town hall, Gordon acknowledged that the four testimonies “took a lot of time and that maybe we could have addressed some of the public concerns, but as I said, this is an ongoing conversation.” He also said that he had privately had a couple of conversations with residents. “We know that we have had a couple of failures in the system as it has progressed to the schools and at Southwest Counseling. And I had a conversation with a parent of a young man who committed suicide, and it tells me that we have so much more that we need to do.”
When asked who members of the public can contact, who do want to talk about their concerns about the mental health care system in Wyoming and did not have a chance to speak at the Town Hall meeting yesterday, Governor Gordon said that on this particular issue, the Policy Advisor is Jen Davis. Her email is [email protected], and he said that people can also always reach out to him directly at [email protected] as well, to share their stories or concerns. It is important for members of the public to share their stories and concerns before the next legislative session because that is when the Wyoming State Legislature will be making decisions on how to fund mental health care in Wyoming.