Wyoming’s suicide lifeline services are expanding to offer 24/7 state-based coverage, as 988 — a 911 for mental health — comes online nationally.
The expansion, which Gov. Mark Gordon announced Monday, is a significant step in the state’s efforts to provide comprehensive in-state service for Wyoming residents experiencing mental health crises. With only two call centers and limited staff, however, there are concerns providers won’t be able to meet a demand that is expected to grow.
Gordon “asked the Legislature to fund the service and expand its availability during the 2022 legislative session and appreciates their support for this initiative,” according to a Monday press release.
While the state is awash in federal funds and the Legislature appropriated $2.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to expand lifeline services at the Governor’s request, those ARPA funds have yet to be deployed.
Instead the latest expansion is thanks to a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant for 988 implementation, according to Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers executive director Andi Summerville.
The comparatively modest SAMHSA funds, which amount to about $60,000 per center each year, enabled the lifelines to close the midnight to 4 a.m. gap that previously existed.
But “it’s 24/7 in a skeleton crew sense,” Summerville said.
That cause for concern is exacerbated, some say, by a larger federal change. On Saturday, hotlines across the nation will shift from seven-digit call-in numbers to “988,” a federal initiative establishing a 911 equivalent for mental health crises. The rollout will include awareness campaigns that experts believe will ultimately boost call volumes at hotlines across the nation.
“The way that it’s been allocated as of yesterday,” Summerville said Tuesday of the SAMHSA funds, “it is not enough to staff the facilities for the anticipated increase in call volume.”
Providers say the millions in ARPA funds will be crucial to ensuring Wyoming’s centers can meet increased demand that could come with the 988 initiative. But when and how exactly the Department of Health will disperse those funds remains an open question.
Addressing answer rates
Wyoming providers have struggled to answer all calls routed to the state. According to a report from the National Suicide Prevention LifeLine and Vibrant, 30% of calls routed to Wyoming in June were not answered by in-state operators.
“Wyoming citizens experiencing a mental health crisis and potentially suicidal thoughts, can now be confident that on the other end of the line, they’re talking to someone who — as a fellow state resident — is familiar with our state and cares about our people,” Gordon said in the Monday announcement.
If call volumes spike, however, that may not be the case.
The soon to be allocated $60,000 is enough for each center to pay for one additional staff member, Summerville said.
Ralph Nieder-Westermann, who directs the Wyoming Lifeline based in Greybull, said his center should be able to better meet current demands for lifeline services thanks to the SAMHSA funds which he utilized to hire another operator.
“The call centers have relatively small staff right now because Wyoming has a relatively small call volume,” said Summerville. But when 988 goes into effect and with it a federal education component, that’s expected to change.
“If it picks up, I can truthfully say I doubt we will be able to meet the needs,” said Nieder-Westermann.
He expects the 988 switch to be more of a “soft launch” in Wyoming, and hopes by the time Wyomingites realize the new system is in place, the Department of Health will have disbursed part of the $2.1 million ARPA dollars to the states’ call centers.
“It will be a game changer,” Nieder-Westermann said of the ARPA money.
Making limited funds last
While providers are concerned about when and how the additional funds will be dispersed, the Department of Health says it will take a cautious approach to deployment.
“We live in an era where there seems to be a lot of federal money falling out of the sky,” Wyoming Department of Health Director Stefan Johansson said.
The department plans to use the roughly $2 million to augment services as needed, and will put out a request for proposals within the next few months, he said.
“We need to monitor how  scales,” Johansson said. “And quite frankly, I don’t think anybody knows exactly what the call volume will look like.”
“As we monitor call volume,” he said, “the department is certainly committed to adjust as needed and deploy the funding that we have.”
Gordon’s spokesperson Michael Pearlman wrote in an email that once the RFP process is completed, Gordon’s office “will have a better idea of the schedule and timeline of ARPA funding utilization. The goal is to maximize the amount of 24-hour coverage the state can obtain with those appropriated dollars.”
Johansson echoed that sentiment, “We obviously want to stretch these dollars as far as possible over the next one to three years to ensure as long term 24/7 coverage as we can get.”
Funds are flowing to the state and health and human service providers right now, Johansson said, but it’s important to remember they are temporary.
“I do think there will be additional opportunities,” Johansson said. “But I also want to keep us focused on doing more with what we have and doing more with less because that seems to be the kind of the world we live in with Health and Human Services, especially in a state as big and sparsely populated as Wyoming.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date of the 988 launch to Saturday. —Ed.