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Wyoming likely no longer home to nation’s highest suicide rate

Initial estimates show Wyoming’s suicide rate slipped below Montana’s last year.

A Suicide Prevention Lifeline operator in Casper waits for calls from 307 area code phone numbers on May 11, 2022. (Sofia Jeremias/WyoFile)

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of harming themselves, please call 911. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “WYO” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

by Madelyn Beck, WyoFile

Early estimates provide some good news for Wyoming: For the first time since 2017, it likely no longer has the nation’s highest suicide rate.

Death investigations can take time and the rates could change, but as it stands, Montana likely tops the list. Using data from state health departments and the Census Bureau, WyoFile calculated that Montana’s suicide rate was 28.67 per 100,000 residents last year, Alaska’s rate was 26.7, and Wyoming’s was 26.66.

All three states recorded rates above 30 the year before.

“Preliminarily, I would say that those numbers make me want to jump for joy,” said Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Centers. “If we do drop out of the No. 1 spot, that is something that we need to take a look at. And we need to double down and make sure that we stay out of that No. 1 spot.” 

This trio of states has historically possessed some of the nation’s highest suicide rates, and likely still does. All three recorded a decrease in suicides from 2021 to 2022 as pandemic restrictions eased, but if the rate in every other state stayed the same, these three would remain at the top of the national list.

Wyoming recorded 155 suicide deaths last year, according to the state Department of Health. That’s down from 190 the year before. Why Wyoming’s rate dropped faster than Montana’s or Alaska’s is still uncertain, but Summerville said visibility and investments likely helped.

“The conversation around mental health in Wyoming has really taken a front seat in the last two years,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of just conversation, which is unbelievably powerful in letting people know that it’s OK to go get help.”

Some of the suicide prevention efforts include the Wyoming Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which brings stakeholders together from around the state. There were also mental health summits, community-level trainings to spot warning signs and messaging by organizations like Cheyenne Frontier Days and energy companies, Summerville said. 

“Preliminarily, I would say that those numbers make me want to jump for joy.” ANDI SUMMERVILLE, WYOMING ASSOCIATION OF MENTAL HEALTH & SUBSTANCE ABUSE CENTERS

Wyoming’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline also launched in 2022, taking over for a harder-to-memorize hotline number. As of July, the state’s call centers had accumulated a full year of data, showing the center answered more than 4,000 calls.

The state had only opened its own call center to help residents in August 2020, previously leaving Wyomingites to call national hotlines staffed with those who may not understand rural issues.

The 62% growth in Wyoming’s 988 calls over that year has largely outpaced federal projections for the centers, according to Summerville. 

“We’re on the extreme high end in Wyoming of those gross projections,” she said. “We’re filling an historical gap with that service. We’ve known that gap has existed, we just didn’t have anything to take care of it.”

In a press release, Gov. Mark Gordon praised the hotline, noting that 99.8% of their calls didn’t require first responder intervention. 

“The fact we are receiving more calls reflects the importance of this service – and the fact that the vast majority are handled without having to rely on law enforcement or EMS underscores the effectiveness and value of the lifeline,” he stated. 

The 988 call center data also shows more than 1,000 veterans called between last July and this June. There have also been anecdotes of call center workers helping connect veterans to aid they couldn’t access previously.

“So they were not only a mental health crisis line, but they also serve as essentially a patient navigator,” Summerville said. 

State lawmakers expressed concerns about funding 988 in perpetuity via a $46 million request early this year, stripping out any funding intended to keep the centers operational past July 2025 — when federal funding runs out. 

Lawmakers encouraged the health department to request funding for 988 in the future and left an account open for donations to the service, though the account expires in 2028.

Still an uphill battle

Even before the pandemic, Wyoming still had some of the nation’s highest suicide rates.

“We will always be a rural state, we’re always going to have our challenges with our geography and just where we live,” said Summerville.

Still, there’s hope that the state can still work to at least bring its rate down even further.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we were in the lower half of that list in five years,” she said. 

Some of the efforts will likely need to focus on the groups most affected by suicide in Wyoming: men with guns. While 136 of those who died from suicide last year were male, only 19 were female, according to Wyoming Department of Health spokesperson Kim Deti.

“More than 70% of Wyoming resident suicides involved firearms,” Deti added. 

Wyoming had the highest rate of suicide deaths caused by firearms in 2020, according to CDC data. In Laramie County, about 90% of suicides were caused by firearms, according to Brittany Wardle, community prevention project director at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.

“I just think there’s a lot of work we need to do around that specifically,” she said. “What we know about firearms is that they’re highly lethal and widely accessible here.”

Lethality is key: if someone survives a first attempt, they have over a 90% chance of not dying in a future attempt. After nine years, only 7% of people who had an unsuccessful attempt had died by suicide, according to broad literature review. 

While handguns may seem like the primary concern with suicides, research from Johns Hopkins found that long guns pose risks, too. Firearms like shotguns and hunting rifles were used more often by kids and teens than adults, researchers found. Long guns were also more likely to be used in rural areas, with more than half of rural gun suicides involving long guns. 

Alcohol is a concern, too. In her county, Wardle said, the amount of suicides that happen while a person has alcohol in their system has gone up from 33% in 2021 to 41% last year. The number of those who died with the cannabis compound THC in their system has also gone up.

Lawmakers could consider an alcohol tax, Wardle said, which some research has shown could reduce suicide numbers in the U.S., especially among men. 

“I mean, taxes in general I know are not a popular endeavor,” she said.

However, Wardle added the tax could affect more than just suicide numbers, but alcohol deaths and vehicle deaths attributed to alcohol. 

Other states have passed firearm-specific policies to limit gun suicide deaths, including delays to purchase a gun or red flag laws, which aim to remove firearms from those at risk of harming themselves or others. These have faced a cold reception in Wyoming, where many see them as a fundamental government overreach. 

However, there are still state-led efforts to raise awareness about these gun deaths, according to Kathy Hoover, the injury and violence prevention program manager at the health department.

“The problem isn’t that people own firearms,” Hoover said. “The problem is that they’re choosing a very lethal method (for suicide).”

Getting people more comfortable discussing firearm deaths, using cable locks and talking to people about firearm storage may have contributed to reduced deaths in Wyoming, Hoover said. 

There are also efforts to give people more specific language to talk with friends or family who they’re worried about, she added. 

“It’s not just ‘Hey, here’s the warning signs, and be there for somebody.’” Hoover said. “It’s, ‘Here’s the warning signs. And this is what you say to be there for somebody,’ because these conversations are very hard.”

At the same time, it’s nearly impossible to say exactly why suicide stats have cycled up and down in Wyoming for the last decade. In a state that’s so rural, even a few more or fewer deaths can have a large effect on the rate.

“While we certainly hope early indications that our suicide rate may be flattening instead of continuing the linear increase over time we had been seeing, it really is too soon to tell if that will be the case,” Deti stated. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.