This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
For most kids growing up in Rock Springs, like I did in the ‘90s, suicide was an unwelcome part of life we accepted and didn’t talk about. We learned early on that society wants us to “cowboy up” and be rugged individuals who handle their own problems. With few mental health resources available, it was the only response most of us knew, even as our friends and family died around us.
Thirty years later, we’re still not doing enough about it. Even though Wyoming recently moved from absolute worst in the nation to number three in suicides per capita, there’s still a long way to go. How many people will die while politicians shuffle their feet?
As I interviewed people for my book about Rock Springs, Out Here on Our Own: An Oral History of an American Boomtown, it became clear how much Wyoming communities need those discussions — and more mental health resources.
“I’ve known over 15 people who killed themselves in Rock Springs,” a former resident told me. Another who still lives there said suicide was rarely addressed by schools: “not even to identify when someone might be in a bad spot and you might need to intervene.”
The Wyoming Legislature is paying lip service to the issue but not taking meaningful action, and the lawmakers who care are outnumbered by those who don’t.
The Legislature considered a bill last session for a one-time $46 million investment that would have permanently funded a suicide prevention hotline staffed by people in Wyoming. The hotline provides critical help to people who are at risk of suicide and don’t know where else to turn — an everyday situation in Wyoming.
Lawmakers had the option to fund this hotline to ensure Wyomingites could contact call centers staffed by locals. Without that state funding, calls will be forwarded to staff in other states who, although well-trained, might not understand Wyoming’s cowboy up culture.
I was dumbfounded to learn that Rock Springs Sen. John Kolb led the attack to block the funding. Kolb, a Republican, sponsored an amendment to “sunset” the program so, without further action, it simply goes away in 2028 — as if our decades-old suicide problem will magically be solved in a few years.
Like a typical good ol’ boy, Kolb hemmed and hawed and found an excuse to do nothing, even while kids in his own community kill themselves. “This program does do some good things,” Kolb said about the hotline, “but the question [is] just how much of a good thing does it do?”
Not everyone in the Senate agreed with Kolb. “It looks to me like we’re trying to put a value on human life. I’m not sure how you do that,” said Sen. Ed Cooper. “If we save one life, then this is a success.”
“I can’t see the future,” Kolb replied. “But I can tell you we have to keep our options open. As soon as we start dragging this down the emotional road, we’ve lost. Absolutely.”
Right. We definitely shouldn’t bring emotions into a debate about saving lives. Makes perfect sense.
Unfortunately, the Senate agreed with Kolb and passed the sunset, 16-15. Without further action, the suicide hotline will cease to exist in just a few years, even though mental health professionals say it has helped drive the slight improvement in Wyoming’s suicide rate.
Kolb’s attitude about suicide — that we should’t get emotional about it, that we don’t really need to take action — reflects the cold-hearted stubbornness that has kept Wyoming from dealing with this crisis in a meaningful way.
Another person I talked to for my book said he was so ashamed of seeking mental health treatment in Rock Springs, he slipped in and out of the counseling center for each appointment trying to remain unseen. “I knew the stigma of going into that building,” he recalled. “I was terrified someone would recognize our car driving past, or someone I knew would be in the waiting room.”
More and more Wyomingites seem to realize that the cowboy up mentality does more harm than good. I interviewed dozens of people for my book, and there was a willingness to talk about tough subjects like suicide. That kind of openness didn’t exist when I was growing up. But as long as people running the state maintain the same harmful and lazy attitude that caused Wyoming to become the worst in the nation for suicide in the first place, we won’t see anywhere near the progress we need against this issue that so violently tears families and communities apart.