Representatives on the House floor for the Jan. 12 kickoff of the 2021 legislative session. Though debate was conducted online, many lawmakers continued to work from their chamber desks. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The state’s mental health and substance abuse treatment network took center stage early in the 2021 legislative session as lawmakers advanced bills to ease licensing requirements in an effort to bring more counselors to the state.

Two House bills developed by the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services committee over the last year give boards that license the state’s addiction and mental health counselors more flexibility and lessen some requirements for addiction treatment experts in an effort to attract more to the state.

Debate on the legislation indicated mental health and substance abuse remain at the forefront of many lawmakers’ minds. The pandemic has by some accounts exacerbated the state’s already pressing need for such treatment resources, even as the governor’s budget cuts threaten to further weaken those networks. 

“What I hear from my constituents is there’s just not enough mental health resources and that people are struggling with substance use during this time and need a place to go,” Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) said during the debate. 

House Bill 3 – Certified addictions practitioners-certification amendments passed the House 52-7 with one lawmaker excused. The bill would allow people with a bachelor’s degree in a “human behavioral discipline” but not necessarily addiction therapy to work in the field while continuing their studies. 

The Wyoming State Capitol lit up at night during the 2020 session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Supporters hope it will help Wyoming develop counselors in the state, as well as make it easier for out-of-state professionals to move here. “We’re really focused on growing our own here,” Andi Summerville, the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, told WyoFile. 

Previous legislative efforts to lower the licensing requirements have been controversial. Last year, debate between different factions of the state’s mental health and substance abuse providers grew bitter. Industry advocates viewed earlier legislation that eased requirements for counselors working in prisons as designed to assist just the Gateway Foundation. That nationwide nonprofit runs treatment programs for the Department of Corrections. 

Summerville’s group and others met with Gateway Foundation representatives throughout the year and created a compromise all parties supported, she and others said. Key to that compromise was making changes in counselor licensing that not only apply to corrections but across the board in the state, Summerville said. 

The Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee unanimously approved the bill Monday morning. The full Senate took one vote to advance it and it faces two more votes in the Senate before passage. 

House Bill 4 – Mental health professions practice act-amendments, creates a certified mental health worker licensing category which, again, features lower education and experience requirements than the state’s traditional counselor standards. In a fiscal note, Legislative Service Office staff predicted 20 people might apply for the new license in its first year. Even that kind of influx of mental health workers would be a “huge boost” in Wyoming, given the need, Summerville said. 

“We are a healthcare-shortage state especially with mental health and substance abuse workers,” Summerville said. “Workforce development is a huge priority for us.”

The Senate has not taken up HB-4. 

Growing need

Wyoming recently became the state with the highest suicide rate in the country, Summerville noted. In remarks to lawmakers in January, Gov. Mark Gordon said the state saw 190 suicides in 2020. Though Gordon linked the increase — 19 more deaths than in 2012, the previous high — to the pandemic, experts say the underlying causes of Wyoming’s suicide, mental health and substance abuse woes precede COVID-19. 

Wyoming was among the worst five states for suicide deaths each of the last seven years. 

Even as the Legislature advanced the House bills, however, budget cuts that will hamstring the state’s ability to respond to such concerns loom in the planned March session.

House lawmakers got an early taste of the debate on those cuts with discussion of House Bill 48 – Community juvenile services block grant program. The bill paves the way for coming cuts to a grant program used by 14 Wyoming counties to pay for local juvenile service boards.

Those boards are made up of health, education and justice-system officials along with mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals and youth advocates. Those local experts spend state money on programs to prevent juvenile delinquency and seek to keep youth out of the court system.

On the recommendation of the Department of Family Services, Gordon proposed eliminating the funding next year. To make that disinvestment the Legislature has to change law that requires it to fund the programs. HB-48 eliminates that requirement. 

Youth study at the Wyo10 Day Reporting Center in Fremont County in 2016. Some of the program’s funding recently came under the knife as Wyoming government slashes funding for programs, including those that keep juvenile offenders out of the court system. (Miles Bryan/Wyoming Public Radio)

The cut will be just one of several to programs intended to keep Wyoming’s youth away from prison or other negative outcomes, and to save the state from the enormous costs thereof. Wyoming has one of the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the nation.

Some House democrats used HB-48 as an opportunity to begin questioning such cuts. Eliminating the program will make it harder for counties to react proactively and will lead to more detention for juveniles and prison time down the road for adults, House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly argued. 

“We will see [the impacts] in other costs,” she said.

House Minority Floor Leader Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie)

The Legislature has no choice, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said, citing the scale of the state’s fiscal crisis,  a result of plunging fossil fuel industry revenues and an unwillingness to pursue other revenue sources. 

“Every one of these [budget choices] was done with an understanding that it will impact communities, it will impact services and it will impact the lives of people in Wyoming,” Nicholas said. The alternative is raising hundreds of millions of dollars, he argued, though individual cuts in these areas are often relatively low dollar amounts.

Eliminating the juvenile services grant program, for example, will save Wyoming $579,000 a year.

The House passed HB-48 out of the chamber with 54 lawmakers in favor. Four Democrats and one Republican voted against it.  

As debate on HB-48 revealed most lawmakers were aware of mental health and substance abuse treatment deficiencies in their own communities, there was some indication budget cuts in those areas would find resistance. The state’s most recent revenue report showed slightly more money than predicted when the governor outlined his spending reductions. 

Several lawmakers suggested that might mean the state’s treatment programs should be spared the worst of the reduction. It is too early to predict how the body might lean in those discussions, Summerville said. They are slated for March. 

But investing in treatment pays societal and fiscal dividends, she said, and “we’re hoping to have that discussion with the Legislature.”

CORRECTION: This story was corrected to indicate that Andi Summerville is the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, not the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counselors as originally reported. —Ed.

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. With every 10 percent increase in wyoming population the addiction and mental health issues seem to increase 25%. Perhaps we could steadily decrease that population and the state could start to return to health once again.

  2. This should be a no brainer and an issue for both sides to support. We underestimate the value that emotional health brings to everyone. Men, especially, are prone to ignore but still be affected by emotional and mental health issues. This is more true in Wyoming, “The Cowboy State” where men are men and push through.

    But if more than 50% of the population suffers, these sufferers affect their family, their friends, their coworkers, their productivity, etc. The 250,000 who do suffer is actually a misleading statistic because of how many other people are affected.

    Let’s do what we can to eliminate or lessen these issues.

  3. From age 19 to age 40, I drank–a lot. Smoked dope (marijuana), too.

    I started while working in a service station (gas station for you younger folks) while attending college. Managed to land a full-time job in 1978, with benefits and retirement…and kept on drinking.

    In the second half of the 80s, I checked my health-care plan and noted that the outfit offered a drug rehabilitation program. It involved 30 days of confinement, so I passed and looked into one of the vaunted 12-step programs, with all its religious connotations that claim not to be religious. I attended several meetings, concluding that they only made me want to drink more, with all the conversations about: once an alcoholic (drug user), always an addict; that I would need help (a “buddy”) for the rest of my life, period; that their supreme being was not in any way religious, etc. So I dropped that nonsense but kept on drinking.

    On fine day, in 1989, I was drunk and driving (I was one of the “lucky” ones who could drive inconspicuously while drunk) I was driving, drunk as usual, to my favorite bar. On the way, I was rear-ended (no damage to either vehicle) while waiting at a traffic signal, by a car-full of drunk city cops on their way home from a wedding reception. They contacted the Highway Patrol and told the guy I had placed my manual transmission vehicle in reverse and backed into them! The patrolman, of course, took their side, and arrested me, which was fine, since I measured 0.18 BAC, but they were turned loose.

    About a week later, I was returning home from the bar, drunk as a skunk, on the freeway. It suddenly hit me: “You idiot. You’re gonna get a second DUI before you get to court for the first one. And, if you don’t quit drinking, you’re gonna lose your job!” Luckily, for me at least, I made it home and simply quit drinking. No withdrawal, just sobriety. No counseling. No 12-stepping. No big deal. Just sober.

    And I stayed sober, until I retired 13 years later and decided to experiment to see if I could drink moderately, at home, alone, at night, no vehicle use. In no time, I was drinking heavily. I simply stopped again, realizing that I was the sort of drunk who, once embarked upon drinking, wanted more booze. Again, I simply quit. Again, no withdrawal, no counseling, no 12-stepping. To the present, I have no desire for booze, and there was no withdrawal. My “experiment” was complete. And, there is nothing special about me.

    My conclusion: to quit drugs, a person must decide, on their own, to quit. No amount of rehab, counseling, 12-stepping (another form of dependency in my opinion), etc. will help unless a person truly wants to quit using drugs. I have known countless 12-steppers and rehab repeats (some by court order) who are still using, so my opinion of such programs is very low. I firmly believe that spending billions on rehab for people who do not really want to quit is a total waste of money.

    1. Its not just about addiction, friend. Anxiety and depression hit many more people than you can imagine. And often these people do not see the light as you did. They need help navigating through their issues, of which addiction is usually only a manifestation of something else.

      1. Sorry, but I must disagree. What happened with me was a rational process, not to mention luck (probability). I had a decent job. Most addicts don’t. I also by then had my fill of psychologists and their games and faddish “cures for a better life” (not to mention the scam of “repressed memories” of the 80s and 90s that led to innocent people losing their jobs or being incarcerated for supposed child abuse during the 80s and 90s) to have any trust whatsoever left for them.

        What we have now is a whole industry of pseudoprofessionals cashing in on making a buck off those in society least able to afford them. The so-called war on drugs was good for them, about the only ones for whom it was good. It’s all one can expect from a society that values wealth, and the wealthy, above all, a society that prefers to discard those who “don’t measure up”, while pretending otherwise.

        If we were truly intelligent apes, we would end the war on drugs, and ensure a living wage for all. That would do more good than a million drug rehab programs.

        1. I was an attorney and was expected to stay strong. I did not know what was happening to me. You can’t say I was or am a dumb person, yet I was unable to see what was happening, let alone admit it. It drove me to a very dark place with very dark results.

          The thing is, I am not alone. My clients suffered. My family suffered. I suffered. My friends suffered. And I was never an alcoholic or drug addict, yet I suffered deeply from depression and an anxiety that kept me from having the confidence to act on most anything.

          Mental health is not just addiction, and until we realize that, we will continue to spend millions on treatments and loss of unnecessary life.

          There is nothing wrong with admitting there is a need for mental and emotional health awareness and education. Had I known I was depressed and suffered from anxiety long before my actions and lack there of bit me in the rear in a very real and serious way, I could have avoided much of what happened.

          As it was, due to me being a male, an attorney, and someone who had to SEEM in control, I was not able to drop my guard because admitting something was wrong would be seen as something indeed wrong and I would be weak.

          We must break that.

    2. Harvey you seem to think that because you were able to stop drinking suddenly that everyone else should be able to do so as well. If everyone was able to turn it off, as you say you did, then there wouldn’t be much of a problem in the nation. It doesn’t work that way. I work in the addiction field and I’ve seen thousands of cases. Addiction is like a tidal wave in this nation. There is no end to this epidemic. You say 12-step, rehabs, etc are a waste of money? Then what’s your solution? If you think people can simply “turn off” their addictions, then you’re part of the problem. Wyoming has the 2nd highest rate of alcoholism and suicide in the nation and the number one ranking for incarceration. People obviously make the personal decision to drink or consume drugs, but Wyoming courts, DAs and judges are doing their part to worsen the situation. Carbon County’s asst DA Sarah Chavez and judge Dawnessa Snyder have the worst track record in the state for throwing the book at addicts. They have one goal: Fill their jail and town prison with inmates. Their posture is to show the public ‘how tough they are’ with addicts. It’s exactly these types who are making the issue worse due to their hard hearts and vindictive nature. Addicts have a disease; all experts acknowledge this.

      1. “Then what’s your solution?”
        See the last sentence of my earlier response.

        What’s your recovery rate? What’s your recidivism rate?

        I’ve seen too many repeats come out of the various “rehab” programs to have any faith at all in the programs. What is needed is a minimum wage that is a living wage and an end to the draconian drug laws created as a result Nixon’s “war on drugs”.

        As real wages declined, use of drugs went up; people became hopeless and turned to an escape from reality. Yuppies were affected, too, but they had money enough to get legal prescription drugs, like antidepressants and tranquilizers, from medicos who got kickbacks from drug companies.

        Thanks to the mentality created by the “war on drugs, we have “rehab” programs around the country. The main effect of such programs is to provide employment for pseudo-professionals and an endless loop of drugs-to rehab-to drugs again for the druggies. We also have a situation in which our kids are drugged in K-12 schools if they show the slightest inclination to be bored with, or opposed to, the conditioning to which they are supposed to happily succumb. We even have cops in classrooms for conditioning kids to the rapidly developing police state here. Luckily for me, schools didn’t have such options when I was attending.

        1. Harvey,

          I am glad you had your moment, sincerely. Some people indeed have them and I am glad you were one of them.

  4. My name is Mya Boren and I live in Rock Springs Wyoming. I have been working in the Mental Health/Substance Abuse Treatment field since 2008. I do not have a formal education, but I have 12 years of on the job experience. I am also a person with a lived experience and am certified as Wyoming Peer Specialist through the Wyoming Department of Health ( Behavioral Health). I am a person who has experienced the effects of trauma and suffer from PTSD, I have experienced suicidal ideation, depression, dissociation, anxiety and panic attacks. I have also suffered the tragic loss of my brother and know what it feels like to grieve the loss of a major relationship. I have gone through therapy as a part of my recovery, however healing is about so much more than meeting a counselor in an office. Yes. Counseling is important. So is finding a community and building a life worth living, a life of meaning and purpose. This is where the role of a peer specialist is vital. We are the people that roll-up our sleeves and assist the person in rebuilding their life. I met an individual in their home and helped them open the mail that they had let pile up for 6 months after experiencing sudden loss and saw first hand how a couple of hours could change a life. Believe it or not sometimes it is the unopened mail that drives the anxiety to a point of overwhelm. When people get overwhelmed their ability to see options contracts, they begin to believe what they are experiencing is unsolvable. People with perceived unsolvable problems kill themselves. Sometimes all it takes is to sit with someone and help them confront their unsolvable problems like opening the mail. Peer Specialists can take the pressure off of therapists and support therapeutic interventions, an individual goes and talks about it in office we then support it and assist with changes between sessions. Therapy becomes more productive and the person feels supported and has more success. We relate to the person because we too know what it is like to get out of bed when depressed, we know what it is like to be so disconnected from yourself that it feels like your life is a movie or you somehow feel unreal and are emotionally numb, we know what it feels like to want to put a gun to your head. We also know skills and ways to help yourself when experiencing negative symptoms and know how to stay alive and live a life of stability. There are over 100 Certified Peer Specialists in the state and most of them are unemployed. I am happy that we are paving ways for more professionals, however the peer specialist role is largely overlooked and not supported by the agencies that could create jobs for peer specialists. Peer Specialists make less than Counselors, but when utilized in conjunction with therapy show how valuable they really are. Evidence shows that working with a peer specialist a person is more likely to stay engaged in therapy and length of stay and duration of treatment is shortened. We are not here to replace counselors, we are here to work as a team to bring hope and wellness back into the lives of those we serve. Some of the barriers we face are lack of education on what the role of a peer specialist is, not being utilized by the agencies that have hired us in a way that is true to the peer specialist core competencies and ethics, finally positions are not being created to employ a peer specialist. I think it is ignorant for us to believe that knowledge equals understanding. Knowledge fosters awareness–understanding is found in experience. There is a portion of healing that requires some understanding, connection to someone else who has felt the way that you do and more importantly to see that person doing well. This is hope. Hope saves lives. Peer Specialists are hope-dealers. We are not here for the money, however we are valuable and our lived experience is worthy of of well paid salary. I may not have spent thousands on a degree, but I have paid dearly to know what I know now, it almost took my life to know what I know. I am passionate about healing it is my purpose on this earth to work with people and show them all the ways that they can find healing and build the life worth living again. The budget cuts are hurting us- the real people of Wyoming. I see this everyday in the positions lost as people leave the workforce, these positions are not filled due to budget cuts. This creates a stressful work environment that is mentally hazardous. More work is piled on the ones who stay, the need is still there, the workers are not. We need to be part of these conversations and there are very capable already trained peer specialists sitting on the sidelines without any hope for employment? Why? I see the need I am one of the few that do have a paid position as a peer specialist. Due to the shortages and the overwhelming need for mental health services I have created a Facebook group called ALIVE Online Mental Health Support Group, it is a private group and only for people with a lived experience. We do a weekly content drop on skills, shared stories of lived experience and a weekly ZOOM meeting this is free and my attempt at helping in this time of crisis. In the end I care about people who suffer from mental health challenges and people who suffer from substance dependence, because I was that person who needed help and hope.

  5. Substance abuse is a public health scourge that adversely effects families, aggravates health care, disrupts employment, fills jails, taxes law enforcement, and is simply a real mess in every dimension. By far the most troublesome substance abused is alcohol. Here is how the legislature handled it last year.

    https://cowboystatedaily.com/2019/11/07/proposed-increase-in-alcohol-tax-rejected-by-committee/

    Now they want to recruit by lowering standards! If only they could recruit really trained professionals by offering competitive compensation and not cutting programs. How much could they save by cutting a year from police training. Never forget these barefoot counsellors will be addressing a deadly disease undermining every aspect of the health of our state.

  6. A couple of corrections: Andi Summerville is the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, not “Counselors” and Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the country, not “county.”