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.
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.
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.