State leaders encourage support for mental health initiatives

Shelby Kruse with The Sheridan Press, via the Wyoming News Exchange

SHERIDAN – While Gov. Mark Gordon touted successes in the state’s work on mental health issues, he and others also acknowledged organizations and institutions around the state will need more than additional funding to continue moving the needle.


The discussions came as part of the governor’s second mental health summit that took place in Casper Tuesday.


Stefan Johansson, director of the Wyoming Department of Health, said the efforts going into the state’s behavioral health services redesign are modest. 


The goals include the people in state institutions being actively pulled toward community treatment providers, therefore increasing efficiency and capacity at state run facilities. Other goals include ensuring high-needs individuals who are not inclined to treatment do not fall through the cracks and the state paying for not only infrastructure and services, but also reimbursing providers for achieving specific social outcomes.


“We have a lot of capital to use,” Johansson said during Tuesday’s summit. “When we get our problems defined, when we can substantiate those problems and when we can answer the question of — with those issues that we can all agree on — what’s the role of the state? … We see the investment from our Legislature.”


Funding sat at the center of many of the day’s conversations around solutions, with some like Johansson pointing to the money already available and others stressing the need for more.


According to Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, seven bills dealing with mental health passed through the Wyoming Legislature this year, but many were met with opposition from what he described as about one-third of the body.


“You've got to go talk to this group, that one-third, because there's the danger that if we get to more than a third we're gonna have more difficulty and we may not pass these important bills,” Baldwin said. “I urge you and I plead for you to help us work with that.”


Gordon, too, said “the money will come” if voters have the will at the ballot box to prioritize mental health initiatives.


But “money doesn’t solve everything,” Gordon also said. “Vision, care, commitment and effort can make a huge difference.”


Several initiatives underway have already made a big difference or are expected to as they continue.


Joined in a panel during the summit by fellow mental health professionals from Laramie and Cody, Sheridan County Prevention Manager Ann Perkins presented the local benefits of Sources of Strength, a program implemented in 15 of 18 schools across Sheridan County.


Perkins said Sources of Strength uses evidenced-based approaches to address youth mental health based on eight factors; family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, mental health and physical health.


“We are teaching kids and families help-seeking behaviors so that they reach out and ask for help, so they know where to get help before they ever even fall in the river,” Perkins said. “We don’t want them to get to the waterfall. We want to get them before they ever even fall in the river.”


Another initiative is the “Three Branch” partnership that seeks to increase coordination between the three branches of government in addressing mental health issues.


“Historically, judges have really wanted to just decide cases based on the law with parties who are represented by attorneys, and it’s not our job to make policy,” Wyoming Chief Justice Kate Fox said. “That was a nice world for us for a long time, but it’s just no longer the reality.”


“The truth is a couple of things, one, courts have become the emergency room for all of society’s ills — mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, domestic violence. And even if we as judges would prefer not to be social workers, that is the reality and we are starting to address it.”


Fox said another big change she has seen is that judges can no longer be isolated from policy.


Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said the Legislature must not only determine what the state’s role is in mental health policy and appropriate policies to implement, but must utilize the experts dealing with the issues.


“We need to recognize that there is a continuity to how we treat people and that does go through all branches,” Gordon said. “And somehow, as a state, coming back to those roots of we all need to care for one another. I know this sounds utopian, but that is the state I grew up in. We need to rediscover that.”


Those speaking about mental health initiatives Tuesday also acknowledged “stumbling blocks” in the way including funding, the need for self-care, youth issues, vulnerable adults and the need to divert people away from the judicial system.


Fox said upward of 80% of incarcerated individuals have substance abuse issues, but treating them in prison is the “most expensive and least effective way to treat them.”


“So I think this is a conversation that on the money front can be extremely persuasive because we spend a lot of money in the judicial branch in our jails and prisons trying to manage people whose real issues are mental health and substance abuse,” she said.


This story was published on April 19, 2023. 



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