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.
CASPER—Katrina Ferrell helps people in crisis.
As program coordinator for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, she assists callers who may be feeling desperate or despondent. The lifeline provides free emotional support and resources day and night.
“I think we make a really big difference in a lot of lives,” she said.
For years, Wyoming has struggled with one of the nation’s worst suicide rates. And for years, it did so without a lifeline staffed by local folks.
That’s no longer the case. Wyoming is now home to a pair of call centers that are available 24/7.
Anecdotally, there are indications the lifelines are helping. Ferrell knows this because sometimes people who use the service call back.
“They’ll call in and they’ll say, ‘I was really in a really awful spot yesterday, and you really got me through, and thank you for the resources,’” she said. “It’s really great to get that kind of feedback.”
But the program faces funding concerns. Right now, it’s paid for primarily through federal COVID relief dollars, but those are expected to lapse after June 2025.
Still, as of mid-September, Ferrell said morale at the call centers was high.
“We’re doing great, we’re doing really great,” she said. “We have a really great team, and I really think that we all work well together.”
Wyoming got its own lifeline in 2020, but it only operated during certain hours. That changed in July 2022, when the state began offering round-the-clock help via 988.
That assistance is provided by people with strong connections to the state. Ferrell, for example, has been here on and off since 1981.
“We’re not from Wyoming, but we got here as fast as we could,” she said, chuckling, attributing the phrase to her dad. “I’m a Natrona County [High School] graduate, I’m a Casper College graduate and the University of Wyoming graduate.”
Everyone else at the center has deep Wyoming roots, too, either from the state, or similarly getting here “as fast as they could,” she added. Some are working on master’s degrees in counseling, and all have experience in the mental health field.
“We take advantage of the fact that we know Wyoming a lot,” she said, pointing to a hypothetical call from a rural area like Meeteetse. “We can talk about what’s around those areas, and we can really empathize with them when they say there are no resources here,” Ferrell said. “Telehealth, it’s a really great resource for individuals.”
There are two centers in Wyoming, including Ferrell’s in Casper and another in Greybull. They both operate phone lines and a text line, accessible by texting 988 or “WYO” to 741741. There’s even an online chat option at 988lifeline.org.
In the year after Wyoming transitioned to 988, the number of calls increased 62% to more than 4,000 calls going through the two centers, including from more than 1,000 veterans.
The 988 call center in Casper runs from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. The one in Greybull runs from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. They reach out to each other in case someone needs help as the times overlap.
“It’s nice to know that we have the ability to communicate amongst each other and to better serve our callers,” Ferrell said. “And it’s really a team effort. And we couldn’t do it without them.”
Importantly, Ferrell said, 988 isn’t for emergencies. For those in imminent danger, that’s still what 911 is for, she said.
In the first five minutes, operators assess whether a caller is facing an emergency situation, asking them about self-harm, suicidal thoughts and a plan/intent to harm themselves, Ferrell said.
“If they answer ‘yes’ to those questions, then we need to know whether or not this is an active rescue situation, whether we need to call emergency services and get somebody, some boots on the ground to take a look at the situation,” she said.
Then, they talk and they listen. They let people know it’s normal to have suicidal thoughts on occasion. The discussion moves into making sure callers have a safety plan they’re confident in, coping skills and resources.
“Then we ask if they want to follow up,” she said. “And if they do, then we set the follow up … and then we always invite them to use 988 again.”
Some calls are brief, she said. Others aren’t.
“I would say an average is probably around 20 to 30 minutes,” she said. “It may go considerably longer if it’s a more critical situation, or if a person is really struggling with de-escalation, but we stay on the call until the job is done.”
Only about 0.2% of 988 calls involved EMS or law enforcement in the crisis line’s first year in Wyoming, according to Gov. Mark Gordon’s office. Gordon praised the crisis line in an August press release.
“I look forward to further useful suggestions and fruitful discussions about how Wyoming can sustainably fund this important resource going forward,” Gordon stated. “We are still losing too many of our neighbors.”
Concerns about 988 leading to police involvement, forced hospitalization or even being charged for this free service are rife nationwide, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts survey. That same survey also revealed only 13% of U.S. adults know about 988. If nearly half of those who know about the number have at least one serious concern about using the service, per Pew, that could narrow the crisis line’s pool of people it can help.
Ferrell said the call centers’ focus is on de-escalating situations, providing the least restrictive solutions possible.
“Our active rescues and welfare checks are few and far between because we need to offer you the support to help empower you to help yourself, and to gain tools that you can use in future situations where you might find yourself in crisis or experiencing thoughts of suicide,” she said.
The Wyoming Department of Health has a data dashboard for 988 calls and published its own press release last month about the call centers. It noted that people with 307 area codes will usually be directed to 988 in Wyoming, while most others will be directed to centers associated with their own area codes.
“Federal and state partners are exploring opportunities to route calls based on a person’s actual location rather than on a phone’s area code, but that option is not yet available,” the press release stated.
The health department also noted that if 988 centers in Wyoming were overwhelmed, the national system acts as a backup. There are calling options in English and Spanish, the health department said, with translation options for more than 250 other languages. Text and chat is English-only for now.
Those calls for private donations are happening as lawmakers face decisions about whether to continue funding the service in Wyoming. The lifelines are funded primarily through federal COVID relief, but that’s expected to lapse after June 2025.
Even if Wyoming’s 988 centers shutter, people will still be able to call the number for help. It’s just less likely they’ll talk to someone who has a similar lived experience as Wyomingites.
“We believe it’s a benefit for most Wyoming callers to be connected to a Wyoming-based call center, with staff who may be more relatable,” Alicia Johnson, the health department’s crisis/988 program manager, said in a press release.
That’s critical in a state that’s historically struggled with a high suicide rate. While Wyoming may no longer have the highest suicide rate in the nation, it’s likely still in the top three.
Last legislative session, House Bill 65 – 988 Suicide Prevention proposed establishing a $40 million trust fund and $6 million reserve account to fund the crisis line in perpetuity. The measure passed — but without any funding.
Lawmakers did keep a trust fund in the legislation so people could donate to 988, but they also voted to allow that to expire in July 2028.
House Bill 65 also tasked the health department with requesting further 988 resources and making “reasonable efforts” to secure donations.
Many lawmakers advocated for waiting to fund 988 in the hopes of gathering more data about its effectiveness.
“I think we can all agree that this is a good program, and I think we can all agree that this is something that should probably be funded,” Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne), who brought the amendment to strip funding from HB 65, said at the time. “But we need to see what the benefits are as this comes forward.”
Others said the delay in funding could cause more uncertainty for 988, its employees and the people who depend on it. The fact that HB 65, which Gordon signed into law, sunsets in 2028 was also a concern for some lawmakers, noting how long it can take for public health programs to take hold.
“It looks to me like we’re trying to put a value on human life,” Sen. Ed Cooper (R-Kemmerer) said at the time. “If we save one life, then this is a success. So you know we’re sitting here talking about who’s going to fund it and how long we’re going to do it — we need to do this as long as it takes to make the problem better. And we need to put the funds in that it takes to make it work.”
The Legislature’s 2024 budget session is slated to start Feb. 12. It’s expected that the health department will request 988 funding as part of its own budget.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.