The Wyoming Legislature has an unofficial favorite dance and it goes something like this.
Step 1: Reject an available federal fix to a pressing problem because it’s not a “Wyoming solution.”
Step 2: Spend months or years trying to craft a home-grown answer.
Step 3: Reject that one too.
I’ve been watching this waltz for decades and it’s still as maddening as it ever was.
The latest egregious performance occurred earlier this year when the Joint Education Interim Committee sponsored House Bill 34 – School finance-mental health services. It would have provided $11.5 million during the 2024-25 biennium to improve mental health services for Wyoming’s K-12 students.
The money for the Wyoming Department of Education-administered grant program would have been taken out of the School Foundation Program. The state’s 48 school districts could have applied for grants of up to $120,000 each to help pay for the services of mental health professionals.
The bill passed the House 35-26, with all members of the anti-liberal Freedom Caucus voting against it. Then the Senate Education Committee killed the measure, 3-2.
Higher than expected mineral severance tax revenues and federal COVID-19 relief funds have left Wyoming with a $2 billion budget surplus — more than enough to make this life-saving program available statewide, not just in a few school districts.
It would have been at no cost to children’s families. If that’s not a homegrown Wyoming solution, what is?
There’s no doubt we need one. Laurel Ballard, WDE innovation officer, told the Mental Health and Vulnerable Adult Task Force at its initial meeting Friday that Wyoming has the highest rate of youth major depressive episodes in the nation.
According to the state’s Preventive Needs Assessment, she added, about 9% of K-12 students reported they had attempted suicide in the past 12 months. The statistic is so alarming that House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) asked Ballard to repeat it.
Ballard said the best way to keep adults from falling through the cracks in the mental health care system is to begin providing help when they are students in school.
What the WDE official told the panel comforted me on one hand because she indicated state agencies aren’t sitting back and waiting for the Legislature to act. But it’s also frustrating: Lawmakers chastised Ballard, the WDE and the Department of Health for using temporary federal funds to fund programs.
“Are we going to see some sustained federal dollars for children’s mental health?” asked Sommers. “It would be great if the state would just pay for it all, but we can’t.
“If we can just keep the patchwork [of services] together, I think that locally based solutions are better than just a statewide thumb on it,” he added. “But we have to be able to maintain that community-based service.”
Apparently, the problem some lawmakers see is that WDE and WDH went after federal funds that will expire in the next few years, with nothing to replace them. Legislators should have thought of that when they rejected HB 34.
In lieu of state funds, federal dollars can be used to get programs off the ground that, if successful, will pave the way for the state to continue them. There’s nothing wrong with using those funds to deal with a mental health crisis, and that’s precisely what Wyoming now has.
If legislators won’t approve bills like HB 34 that spend state money on promising programs then that’s on them, not state agencies coming up with innovative solutions on their own.
Ballard said the WDE received its first mental health grant in 2020 — $9 million over five years from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It’s a pilot project in three Campbell, Fremont and Park county school districts. Behavioral health providers either visit schools, or students are transported to their clinics.
SAMHSA awarded another $9 million, five-year grant for a pilot program in Carbon, Sweetwater and Uinta counties. Ballard said small rural communities have few mental health providers, if any, so this program uses telehealth to connect with Wyoming Behavioral Institute and Central Wyoming Counseling Center, both in Casper.
The WDH is using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funds to provide telehealth mental health services in Park and Big Horn counties. American Rescue Plan Act federal funds are providing a similar pilot project in Niobrara and Goshen counties.
Ballard said the final pilot program offers trauma-informed care in two Sweetwater County school districts. It aims to recognize, understand and empathize with the impact of trauma on students.
Ballard noted even some children whose families have private health insurance aren’t covered for mental health services, while others from low-income families may not be covered under Medicaid. All five pilot projects are free to students’ families.
Ballard said the five pilot projects cover school districts that have nearly 30,000 students, about one-third of the total statewide. About 1,400 students have received services so far, she said, usually within 30 days.
“Sustainability is [what] will make this work,” said Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), a former House speaker who serves on the Legislature’s new mental health task force. “How do we get past sustainability and past ‘pilot’ projects? I am concerned about the other 60,000 students in Wyoming. How do we help them?”
How about investing in the services they need?
Wyoming ranked 44th in youth access to mental healthcare in 2020. Ballard said the state improved to 36th last year. “While there’s much more work to be done to help youth experiencing a mental health crisis,” Ballard said, “I feel like we’re moving the needle in a positive direction.”
But the lack of legislative leadership on youth mental health issues is alarming.
In 2021, the House killed a bill that would have created a program to teach students to learn the warning signs when people may be considering suicide. Opponents claimed it put too much of a burden on teachers.
Earlier this year, the Legislature was asked to create a $46 million suicide prevention trust fund that would have operated the state’s “988” suicide and crisis hotlines in perpetuity, with no further state funds. That’s the definition of sustainability and it would have cost a fraction of the $1.4 billion lawmakers decided, instead, to put in savings.
But the Legislature didn’t put a dime into the trust fund. Establishing it was a meaningless gesture that did nothing to ensure the availability of services for anyone, young or old, seeking 24/7 emergency, life-saving assistance.
House Bill 34, the $11.5 million appropriation that three state senators killed this year, wasn’t a perfect bill. Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, told the task force the state would have a difficult time hiring enough licensed psychiatrists and psychologists to provide mental health services to students.
“Where are we going to find them?” Summerville asked. “We just don’t have that workforce.” But telehealth may have gone a long way to resolving the problem, and so could contracts with community-based centers.
The mental health task force doesn’t have a long time to work; just three more interim meetings to submit recommendations for possible legislation to the Joint Education and Health committees. Summerville suggested several options, including “universal” mental health assessments of preschoolers 3 to 5 years old.
Hopefully, the new mental health task force will jump-start ideas to provide programs with the sustainability that members want. But a vital part will be developing an effective referral system so students who need mental health treatment get it ASAP. That will likely only happen if the Legislature is willing to make a substantial state investment, not just pay lip service to “Wyoming solutions” that won’t pass.