NOTE: This column addresses suicide and suicide attempts. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the Wyoming LifeLine at (800) 273-TALK (8255). -Ed.

When I was 2 years old, I startled my parents by emerging from their bedroom playing with a loaded handgun. My father, an Air Force policeman, accidentally left it out when he came home exhausted after his shift.

Many years later, Dad told me what happened and how it likely shaved a few years off his life.

Opinion

The next time I picked up one of his pistols, it was with intention. I was 17, a high school senior who was in a spiraling depression.

I can’t remember anything particularly bad occurring that day, either at school or my afternoon job. I just had an overwhelming feeling that nothing was ever going to get any better.

So, I decided to kill myself. And I knew just how to do it.

When my parents went shopping that night, I made an excuse not to go. I took the pistol from their closet, where it was tucked behind Dad’s cowboy hat. It was loaded, for the family’s defense.

I went to my room and sat on the edge of the bed. I was remarkably calm as I pointed the gun at my head, staring at my reflection in the mirror. I don’t know how long I stayed in that position, but it seemed like forever, as if I was watching someone else’s life.

I didn’t pull the trigger, but not because my depression suddenly lifted. I had the same feeling of hopelessness, but I also didn’t want my parents to come home and find me dead. It would be a mess, and they’d never get over it. I couldn’t cause them that kind of pain.

I put the gun back in its holster, returned it into the hiding place and went downstairs to watch TV, trying to pretend I was normal.

I needed help, but that was impossible. Members of my military family were expected to solve their own problems. Therapists? Psychiatrists? Out of the question.

Two decades later, I finally, grudgingly, sought assistance. But I never told anyone else about that night, until now.

What made me decide to share a painful, private moment I’ve been quiet about for almost a half-century? Good question.

Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 182 people in the state took their own lives in 2020. That’s 31 per 100,000 individuals, more than double the national average.

Though it’s difficult to write about my mental health struggles, I also believe we won’t lower our suicide rate if we aren’t willing to talk about it. I’ll go anywhere in the state, in person if possible or on Zoom, if sharing my experiences could help someone.

Session after session, lawmakers push anti-abortion bills, but being “pro-life” also means providing mental health services to kids after they’re born.

Kerry Drake

Reducing the stigma about suicide is essential, but it took me years to learn that. I didn’t seek professional help until I was 37, when panic attacks left me so debilitated I couldn’t even walk into my newsroom one morning.

I made an appointment with a psychiatrist, then tried to cancel it the next day. The receptionist wouldn’t let me, and I’m forever grateful to her. She said if I thought I needed help, I couldn’t suddenly get better on my own.

Medication ended the panic attacks, but that was only one part of my problem. My official diagnosis is “major depressive disorder.” It’s a chronic condition that affects more than 3 million people a year in the U.S. It can ebb and flow throughout one’s lifetime, which has been my experience.

But with a combination of the right meds and psychotherapy, MDD can be successfully treated. I’ve been fortunate to have a series of caring therapists help me cope, and I no longer self-medicate. My suicidal thoughts haven’t magically disappeared, but I have no intention to harm myself.

I was also inspired to share after reading WyoFile reporter Sofia Jeremias’s article about how some rural areas are cobbling together resources to offer free therapy sessions to students and parents, often using telehealth.

This is great news. But why are we using a patchwork approach to tackle a life-threatening epidemic? Doesn’t Wyoming have the ability to do more?

Gov. Mark Gordon asked the Legislature to spend $7 million — out of $1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds — to extend two suicide prevention hotlines to 24/7 in-state service.

The Legislature came up with only a two-year, $2.1 million appropriation.

Using two national suicide prevention grants, Wyoming LifeLine in Greybull is expanding its operating hours from weekdays to seven days, but only from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (800) 273-TALK (8255).

From 4 p.m. to midnight, calls are automatically routed to the state’s other hotline, operated by Central Wyoming Counseling Center in Casper at (307) 776-0610. Then at midnight, calls are handled by national overflow centers till 4 a.m.

The calls that go to the national center aren’t answered by people who can direct those who need help to local services. Why can’t the Legislature develop a long-term, sustainable plan to adequately staff a state-based suicide prevention hotline around the clock?

In 2021, the House killed two bills requiring school districts to offer suicide prevention instruction. In 2017, lawmakers cut more than $2 million from suicide-prevention and substance-abuse-treatment programs.

Session after session, lawmakers push anti-abortion bills, but being “pro-life” also means providing mental health services to kids after they’re born.

The other things consuming the Legislature’s time are measures to strip restrictions on access to guns. Wyoming can protect adults’ Second Amendment rights, but must do more to create a gun-safety culture for our children.

My father wanted to protect his family, not realizing his loaded gun could do me harm. He never dreamed I might be suicidal, and frankly, if he was still alive, I wouldn’t have written this column, to spare him any embarrassment.

But I think he’d recognize that I’ve shared to stress the importance of keeping kids safe. I’ve never allowed firearms in our home, but parents have no control over how other families secure their weapons.

Too many of my friends and relatives have either tried to kill themselves or succeeded in taking their own lives. I’ve seen families, schools and entire communities shattered by these experiences, and it’s heartbreaking.

It’s a cliché, but we really are all in this together. Wyoming has capable professionals and volunteers trying to reduce suicide deaths, but it’s not easy. Insufficiently funding programs makes it more difficult.

In 1972 I didn’t know who to turn to, and I’m lucky an impulsive act didn’t end my life. In Wyoming, we tend to believe we can “cowboy up” and handle our own problems. That isn’t possible with serious mental health issues that lead to suicide.

Statistics show what we’re doing simply isn’t enough. Let’s openly talk about it, provide local help 24/7 and assure people they don’t have to go it alone.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. My son was suicide victim January 29, that leaves the families a victims of his choice. with all of the electronics in the world, had no clues to his decision no paper trail or indication. the only thing I can think of he didn’t renew his auto tags or put up his firearms after hunting.

  2. Another attempt. It’s a legitimate question, censors.
    And what is your response to the observation that the vitriol and personal attacks typically found in your columns, and the posts of regular commenters here don’t exactly model this (new-found?) concern for the mental health of the intended recipients?

  3. To share a story that hits hard for me.
    When I was 13 a friend of the family committed suicide. He was 14 and it shook all of Casper. The devastation to his family and friends was enormous. Both his parents quit work due to depression and embarrassment. The family left and moved to another state. I never heard from them again.
    No one saw it coming. I saw him every day and had no idea. He was a happy person and full of fun. I really had no idea that he suffered from depression.
    I really didn’t even know what depression was at 13, I thought it meant he was sad.

    The incident prompted my sister who was in Casper College studying social work to start a crisis hot line called CARES. I don’t remember what the acronym meant, but it helped people that needed to talk. Many of them were in the edge of suicide with no one to talk to.

    Many individuals in the college and the community volunteered to work the phones to help people. It was all volunteer time, money and donations.
    They would talk to the person and hopefully have resources they could refer them to.

    After she left Casper it survived about a year and then went by the wayside.

    50 years later we still do not have a system that works.
    Depression is a disease. People need help.
    I have no idea the what the solution is but there needs to be money to fund such a thing.
    And for those people that say it is not the gun, it is the person they are missing the point. It is the person and the person has a problem and they need help. Help not to hang themselves , or shoot themselves, or take to many pills, or crash their car in order to end their life.

    You can’t just Cowboy up to solve a mental problem.

    Thanks for your article Kerry and I am glad that the Drake picture is back.

  4. Kerry, thank you so much for your article. You are 100% correct, Wyoming needs to do something for the people in this state who suffer from mental health issues. Our suicide rate is far too high. In my husband’s family there generations who have suffered from forms of these once hidden diseases. I have spent over 48 years of my life living with a husband and son who suffer from bipolar and anxiety disorders. Thankfully they both have gotten help and my husband went from contemplating suicide to becoming president of Wyoming NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) and then a lays pastor for The ELCA church. He was always an advocate for those who needed help. Our family has fought to bring awareness to the plight of those needing help throughout the state. I totally agree with you that pro-life should include those children who need help so they can go on to life lives filled with hope and fulfillment through support from our county and state mental health departments.

  5. TY for sharing your story, and the truth that WY is letting far too many persons with mental health issues struggle alone. Too many are at the end of their rope, no bootstraps to pull on, no cowboy-support in sight.

  6. Before I retired, I worked with a guy who was all about being self reliant. Didn’t put much stock in things like mental health, physicals, exercise, preventive health checkups, or psychotherapy. His attitude eventually cost him dearly. His son committed suicide in his twenties. He himself died of colon cancer in his seventies. Both might be alive today with a little less bravado and a little more compassion.

  7. Thank you, Kerry, for this brave, eloquent and compassionate piece. Shame on our uncaring, ignorant, smugly “pro-life” legislature.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this very personal, yet tragically universal story.
    I hope it reignites important conversations about both mental health and gun safety in our neighborhoods, towns, state.

  9. It is not the gun, but the person. When you try to blame guns you shut me completely out of wanting to help. You want to take something away from me to help others? I am disappointed in your cure.

    1. Well said. Just because someone has decided they’re not capable of possessing guns doesn’t mean they’re entitled to dictate that other responsible people should not. Mandating “suicide prevention education” or gun control is simply more government overreach.

        1. You’re right. It’s about the Left forcing their unpopular agenda on a free people with mandates and executive orders.

          1. Wow buddy, did you even read the article? Drake isn’t talking about “takin’ yer guns”. The piece is about mental health and the state’s high rate of suicide.

            Get a grip

  10. Today is my childhood friend’s birthday; we grew up together, became separated for many years, and suddenly she reached out and found me. I have been diagnosed with depression, and I started having panic attacks a few years ago under some pretty challenging and tragic circumstances. Even with all that, it took me some time to realize my friend was struggling. She took her own life five years ago. Thank you for writing this. Glad you are getting the support you need.

  11. Thank you Kerry for telling a difficult story. There are solutions to all problems, we just have to find them. I agree “we are all in this together.”

    Rex Rammell

  12. Thank you. As a gay man, I thought seriously about ending my life when I was 15. I am 73 now, and I love my life. But it is still hard to live in Wyoming—the fear for my personal safety and for my family is sometimes overwhelming. I have lost too many family members and friends to suicide. Cowboy ethics don’t save lives.

  13. I love you Kerry. You are warm, brave and so very kind. Thank you for sharing your story and insights.

  14. Thank you Kerry, for your most honest sharing. I hope it leads to better understanding and more support for suicide prevention in Wyoming. I am always grateful for your reasoned questioning and compassionate, insightful views.

  15. Thanks for writing this and for sharing your story, Kerry. It can’t have been easy.

    Shame on everyone who worked against fully funding the hotline and has the audacity to call themselves pro-life instead of anti-abortion.

  16. You are so very right Kerry. Thanks for your open sharing; it’s very personal and very powerful. Regrettably, our ultra conservative legislature doesn’t show signs of ever being this compassionate. We wish it otherwise, for our humanity, but the only way would be changing how Wyomingites vote – and as a Wyoming native, I cannot envision that day in my state. So it’s up to us, as parents and grandparents, do do what we can. Thanks for another great article – you say it so well.

  17. There are only 27 psychiatrists , that is five for every 100,000 people, in Wyoming. Wyoming along with North Dakota and Alaska has the lowest number of psychotherapists in the US per capita. If you have suicidal thoughts you should go straight to the closest hospital and ask to be admitted. Don’t feel embarrassed or like you should pull yourself up by the bootstraps

  18. Thanks Kerry for sharing your story. It’s sad that mental illness is not taken more seriously in Wyoming. I researched and wrote an article about Wyoming’s high suicide rates in the 1990s. If anything, it’s gotten worse. You are right; we must talk about it.

    1. I would like to thank Mr. Drake for sharing a very personal issue . Depression is a very real problem, especially in Wyoming, that people don’t want to talk about. Bringing this problem to the forefront may save someone’s life. I’m a vetern and this issue is even a larger problem. Sticking your head in the sand won’t help. Thanks again.

  19. I am a retired psychotherapist, and I want to applaud this very brave–and certainly helpful–column. I have watched in dismay over the past 25 years at the drastic decrease in public funding for mental health services. I hope more people will speak out and that this trend can be reversed. Thank you!