Cole Allen seemed to be living the life that the 18-year-old Cheyenne cowboy had always dreamed about.
Cole was a team roper who had already won competitions during his two months on the Central Arizona College rodeo team. He had even roped with Erich Rogers, a world champion in the event.
But in their phone conversations, Andrea Allen sensed that her son was lonely. “We told him, ‘Come back home,’” she recalled. “He said he didn’t like any of his options.”
Andrea had no idea suicide was an option for Cole. She was stunned when her husband, Shane, called on Oct. 5, 2021, to tell her their son had taken his own life.
“I could not believe that it was real,” Andrea said at a recent Wyoming Suicide Prevention Symposium in Cheyenne. “He left a note saying it was his decision. I’ve got to think it was depression, and he didn’t know what it was.”
The Allens knew everyone in Cole’s life would have questions, so they created a Facebook page and shared their heartbreaking story. The family was surprised when more than 1,000 people responded, including many who had also lost loved ones.
“At first I thought that grief was something you get through, but it’s not,” Andrea said. “It’s part of who you are from then on.”
In the year since Cole’s death, his parents and 15-year-old sister Molly have focused on suicide prevention awareness. Wyoming has the highest per capita rate of suicide in the country, more than twice the national average. It affects all walks of life — even cowboys, who, our mythology tells us, traditionally work out their own problems.
Country music star Garth Brooks filmed a video for Cheyenne Frontier Days’ suicide prevention campaign. It honors cowboys like Cole and reminds people who may be struggling in their lives that, just like the riders who assist rodeo competitors, “Everybody needs a great pick-up man.”
“The Western way of life is not an easy one,” Brooks said. “Therefore a lot of suicides happen in our way of life … We’re cowboys, we’ve got to stick together.”
Frontier Days is using the video to promote a new national suicide and crisis lifeline that connects callers to trained workers by dialing “988.”
Wyoming didn’t have its own suicide prevention line until two years ago, and full-time services weren’t available until July. Two organizations combine to operate 24/7. Wyoming LifeLine, a virtual center in Greybull, staffs the line from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m. The other 10 hours per day are covered at the Central Wyoming Counseling Center in Casper.
(Full disclosure: I am a member of Wyoming LifeLine’s advisory board. I previously served on a CWCC advisory committee for its Title 25 cases, when people are at risk of hurting themselves or others.)
Calls from the “307” area code are routed directly to the Wyoming centers. If all of the crisis workers are busy with other callers, inbound calls spill over to the national lifeline.
It’s essential for an in-state network to connect callers with local resources, said Ralph Nieder-Westermann, WYLL’s executive director. Without one, he explained, “You’re going to reach a very capable crisis worker in midtown Manhattan who won’t know anything about living in Wyoming.”
Moving to Greybull from New York City, Nieder-Westermann and his husband, Jeff Henne, opened a Wyoming call center. Two years ago, Karen Sylvester, WYLL’s director of training, convinced them Wyoming needed its own suicide prevention lifeline.
Self-funded, the independent operation started small, serving four counties for four hours each weekday. But WYLL grew quickly with the help of the Episcopal Church Foundation, the Green River Valley Hospital Foundation and individual donations. With its CWCC sister center, they fulfilled their joint goal to answer calls round-the-clock.
Kevin Hazucha, CEO of the Casper center, said the first call it received in August 2020 required an active rescue for someone in imminent danger. But the centers field many calls from people who may feel stressed out or isolated and just need someone to talk to.
“Loneliness can be devastating for anybody’s mental health,” said Hazucha, who noted both centers began during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many residents worked or stayed at home. Crisis workers ask questions to assess whether someone is at risk of suicide, but listening is also effective in keeping callers’ concerns from rising to that level. The centers receive about 400-500 calls per month, with the average call lasting 12 minutes.
Charles Smith, regional director of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said Wyoming’s average response time of 16 seconds is half the national average. “It’s been a tremendous success,” he said.
But it’s also a system that needs improvements beyond any state’s control. Using a caller’s area code connects them to a specific state network, but many people use phone numbers they kept when they moved from other states. Not all calls are routed to one’s current state. Nieder-Westermann said a “geo-location” system is needed to direct calls to the most appropriate center.
Meanwhile, unlike the emergency “911” line, crisis workers do not know where a caller is unless the person tells them.
Every moment can be critical if someone has a plan to kill themselves and the means to do it. But it’s a complicated issue, which is why it’s now in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission, which will determine how geo-location is used.
A crisis worker develops a caller’s trust to assess the risk and provide necessary help. Some crisis experts say police or other emergency responders suddenly appearing at someone’s door might unnecessarily escalate the situation.
Sylvester said many callers don’t want people to see their car parked outside a counselor’s office, and may prefer to seek help in another town, or even out of state. WYLL and CWCC maintain comprehensive resource books to refer people to counselors, programs and other assistance. Crisis workers also call back to find out how a person is doing.
The Wyoming centers look for ways to help special at-risk populations. WYLL partners with AgriSafe, a nationwide crisis hotline for farmers. It also works with the LGBTQ community through Casper PRIDE.
The Wyoming centers need a stable source of funds, so they don’t have to return to the Legislature yearly or rely on temporary federal funds and grants. At its Nov. 21-22 meeting in Cheyenne, the Joint Revenue Committee will consider a proposal to create a state trust fund to provide permanent funding.
Andrea Allen said suicide ultimately touches all of our lives, and encourages people to call 988. “Don’t be ashamed to talk about suicide or afraid to talk about your loved one,” she said. “Acknowledge that everyone grieves differently. We’re here to tell the rest of Cole’s story.”
Andrea and her daughter Molly did precisely that when they recently appeared on an episode of Wyoming PBS’s series, “State of Mind: Confronting Our Mental Health Crisis.” Molly’s mission was to forcefully dispel myths about suicide.
“A lot of people talk about how people who commit suicide are cowards,” she said. “If you knew Cole, ‘coward’ is not a word you would ever think of.”
Brooks conveyed a similar message in his video, urging people to check in with their buddies and families. “Reach out for that pick-up man if you need it,” Brooks said. “It’s not showing weakness, it’s showing courage and it’s showing smarts.”