This story is part of a six-topic series addressing issues of importance to Wyoming sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council as part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes — Ed.
When Jeffrey Hyde moved onto North Fenton Street in Casper, Pamela Kandt thought she had gotten a fine new next-door neighbor, and indeed for nearly two years she did. Described as a dedicated worker in the oil business, Hyde loved to garden and hunt. He had two dogs, one of which Kandt helped raise.
Though Hyde was reserved, he and Kandt exchanged vegetables and baked goods over the fence and with time the relationship warmed.
But sometime last October Hyde got laid off from his job on an oil rig, and over the two months before his death Kandt says his mental health began to deteriorate rapidly. She witnessed him having conversations with people who didn’t exist, and this eventually escalated into shouted profanities.
Kandt and her husband knew that Hyde had struggled with alcoholism in the past, but for the two years they’d known him they’d never seen him drink. Once he started unraveling, however, he began to do so again.
Then one June night, Hyde, for reasons Kandt cannot understood, started firing into her house — first with a shotgun, and then with a semi-automatic rifle.
Kandt hit the floor and lay on top of her 16-month-old granddaughter. She called 911 while her husband crawled into the living room, his old shotgun pointed at the front door. Downstairs, Adrienne Morstead, who lives with Kandt, and her mother took cover in a basement room.
Eventually the police surrounded Hyde’s house. Upon the officer’s arrival there was an attempt at negotiation, but Hyde retreated inside his house. Ultimately, Hyde was shot and killed when he came back out of the house firing at officers.
After his death, Kandt learned about the history of mental illness in Hyde’s family — particularly a brother who committed suicide after a similarly rapid decline. In Hyde’s obituary, the family asks memorial donations to be directed toward either an animal shelter or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Eventually, Kandt concluded that Hyde must have stopped taking some type of medication after his job loss. “It was such a drastic change in personality that there’s no way else to explain it,” she said.
Kandt is somewhat more informed than the average innocent bystander. As a chaplain for many years, she trained extensively in victims services, visiting with families shattered by suicide or violence. She also worked with the Wyoming Department of Health as an advocate for at-risk youth, speaking in schools about substance abuse and risky behavior.
She called the lack of support for those dealing with mental health issues as “this huge gap that you could drive ten semis (semi-trucks) through.”
When ten days before his death Hyde was standing in his front yard yelling obscenities, a different neighbor called the police. Upon arrival they told Kandt there was not much they could do in regards to Hyde, unless there was a life-threatening emergency. “The next time he is standing in his yard yelling, just call us,” she remembered them saying. “And the next time we saw him in his yard we did call them, because he was shooting at our house.”
Whether anything could have been done to prevent the tragedy on North Fenton Street is largely supposition. Kandt believes that had more of Hyde’s friends come forward with stories of his erratic behavior, reports she did eventually hear after the fact, perhaps an intervention of some kind could have been staged.
Kandt said that, even with her background in the field, she was unsure who to call other than the police. And yet, before the shooting began, it wasn’t really a situation that called for police. It was a situation for a support and intervention structure that was not there for Jeffrey Hyde.
Statewide budget cuts
Hyde began shooting at Kandt’s house at 10:43 pm on June 21st, according to news reports at the time. Just that morning a different news story had dominated Wyoming media – Governor Mead had just announced a sweeping cut of $248 million from the state’s budget.
The same downturn in the energy industry that cost Hyde his job led Wyoming to reduce its budget for social services and health programs that provide outreach on mental health, substance abuse and suicide issues across the state.
Hyde was reserved, isolated from his family, an energy worker who had a troubled relationship with alcohol — all fitting the risk factors for Wyoming mental health challenges. The point of Hyde and Kandt’s story is that this area is one in which Wyoming already faced acute challenges, long before the cuts. Less funding is only likely to make things worse and hamstring efforts to get ahead of mental health problems in the state.
The cuts the governor announced to the Department of Health budget eventually hit programs that deal with mental health, suicide prevention and substance abuse. After reductions to matching federal funds were included, that meant almost $3 million was erased from prevention programs under the Public Health Division, and more than $16.5 million was taken from related treatment programs under the Behavioral Health Division.
Wyoming has a demonstrable, very well-known problem with mental health and substance abuse issues, with a suicide rate of more than twice the national average. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Wyoming is ranked 4th highest in the nation for suicide deaths, with a rate of 26.7 suicides per 100,000 people. The national average is 12.93. (Kandt considered her neighbor’s death “suicide by cop,” noting Hyde had removed his beloved dog from the property that day – perhaps anticipating his death).
Wyoming’s suicide rate has stayed like this for the last 16 years — well above and often double the national average. In 2005, the state Legislature began increasing funding for mental health services. But starting in 2013, though the state had budget surpluses, the Legislature began reductions in mental health spending, mostly to treatment programs, that continued for the next two years and have now been deepened by the governor’s cuts.
For 2012 to 2013, Wyoming’s percentage of alcohol abuse or dependence issues was also higher than the national average, although not as drastically — 8.1 percent of the population, compared to a national average of 6.8 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Wyomingites enrolling in treatment programs declined steadily, from 3,411 in 2009 to 2,798 in 2013, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a national organization.
Gov. Mead spoke on Wyoming’s suicide problem recently, proclaiming September 2016 to be Suicide Awareness Month and publicly recognizing both those who work in suicide prevention and the challenges faced by both people struggling with thoughts of suicide and those trying to help them.
“The stigma associated with suicide works against prevention efforts by discouraging those at risk from seeking life saving help,” he read from the proclamation, before signing it.
The Department of Health’s main asset for helping to erode that stigma and lead prevention efforts in both suicide and substance abuse, the Wyoming Prevention Management Office, lost 10.4 percent of its annual budget starting in July under the governor’s budget cuts
Keith Hottle, the Chief Executive Officer, said the office was able to reach its reduction targets largely without cutting essential services, despite having only two weeks to adjust the budget. To keep funding community prevention efforts, officials cut from the organization’s back end — administrative support, technical assistance, research and policy and their outreach programs in social media and marketing.
Still he said, those cuts hampered their ability to provide preventive support to communities in as timely a manner as they did before.
There were two specific programs the PMO cut that could slow prevention efforts. One was eliminating a portion of its statewide media campaigns. Called “Talk Early and Often,” the campaign focused on raising awareness of the lasting effects of underage drinking, through hard-hitting videos with a voiceover from Wyoming’s First Lady, Carol Mead. Alcohol use increases the risk of suicide and as the videos, still existent on YouTube, point out, kids who drink are five times more likely to become alcoholics.
Though just one part of a prevention strategy, it was a loss. “Not having that sustained media over time does have an impact on our ability to change the way people view these problems all over Wyoming.” Hottle said.
Fate of a program for research into preventive care
Another key program that saw cuts was a Campbell-County-specific program for suicide prevention. Originally intended as a pilot, it was an approach to prevention that could be instituted statewide if it proved to be as effective as hoped.
Called the Collective Impact Project, it was ambitious — and still is, despite being cut back: a comprehensive effort to train Campbell County’s biggest employers to spread mental health awareness down through their ranks.
Keith Howard, at the PMO’s field office in Gillette, talked about the project with an enthusiasm that at times swallowed the middle of his sentences. A Gillette native, his passion comes from experience with substance abuse and suicide. “This is my home and since high school I’ve watched and been keenly aware of friends and family that struggle with this,” he said.
Amongst the community leaders enlisted for the project are those from the hospital, the county school district, the utility company Basin Electric Power and the city of Gillette itself. “And it ripples out from there,” Howard said. The major coal companies had been trained previously in suicide prevention and risk-identification strategies.
Those employers in the project will be trained in a method of identifying suicide and mental health risk and getting the affected person into treatment. One of the project’s goals, already well underway, is to leave people in each participating organization that are not just trained in prevention methods, but able to train others.
“We want to institutionalize it,” Howard said.
Having community leaders and employers on board would allow prevention efforts to reach adults where contact is most easily made in a rural county — at the workplace. The goal is to start with suicide prevention and then work back to issues like substance abuse.
The Collective Impact Project as originally planned was novel both in its approach to prevention and in assessment of its success. Since September 2015, Howard had been working with a contracted data analyst to gather baseline data necessary to study the new project’s impacts on suicide prevention.
Suicide prevention’s effectiveness is hard to track, Howard said. However its planned method of real-time data tracking was going to help pinpoint the program’s effectiveness, the PMO believed. On top of that, oficials would compare it with data from a Wyoming county not using the Collective Impact Method.
The end result would be an innovative suicide program tried and tested by data, that if successful in Campbell County could be exported across the state.
Howard got married in mid-June, and left for a Jamaican honeymoon with the project’s groundwork laid down. When he got back he found the Collective Impact Project’s budget cut to the point where he and his colleagues had to abandon the research component and let the data analyst go.
The funding they had left is now focused on prevention training itself. Instead of working 50 hours a week on Collective Impact, Howard would spend only 5 hours a week (at least on paper) on the project — and 45 hours a week coordinating regular local prevention efforts, a position he had moved out of but whose new occupant had to be cut.
Like many passion-driven social workers, Howard takes the increased workload, and fact that he’ll work well outside the bounds of his paid salary, with a shrug. Prevention specialists everywhere are doing so right now, he said.
Both he and the project’s supervisor are confident the design will be effective in Campbell County. But even if it is, until they can do the research necessary to demonstrate it, the method won’t be exportable.
“Without the research to prove what we’ve done, why would anybody else allocate the money to do it?” Howard said.
“It was a difficult choice,” said state PMO director Hottle who had to order the program cut, but necessary to keep their essential mission intact. “We couldn’t justify paying for the research part of a project when the money would have to come from another part of the state.”
In short, the agency had to cut from a proactive strategy aimed at getting ahead of a problem, to focus remaining funding on keeping core suicide and substance abuse prevention efforts running.
Hottle is quick to point out that the limited resources they’re facing are not unique but have been spread across all components of the Department of Health, which saw a total of $90 million in cuts from the state budget, a number amplified by nearly $41 million in cuts to matching federal funds.
Everybody has been hit, Hottle said, all the way up to programs like the PMO that hope to “drive the problem down at a systems level.”
When compared to states of similar population size and rural character, Wyoming’s budget cuts to mental health stand out.
In neighboring Montana, the 2017-2018 budget increased its public health funding for addictive and mental disorders by more than $55 million. In September of 2015 Gov. Bullock also spread $1 million over five different communities for a pilot project in mental health outreach to youth and families.
In Vermont, the state whose population ranks closest in size to Wyoming, the mental health department has a budget of $220 million. While Wyoming does not have a comparable single office, allocations to mental health services from the Department of Health total to slightly less than $142 million. Alaska, which is dealing with budget deficits from an oil downturn of its own, also has made cuts to substance abuse and mental health programs.
Cuts coincide with widespread social stress
It’s particularly unfortunate, Hottle noted, that these cuts come at a time when an economic downturn brings increased stress to families and individuals across the state.
“It’s kind of a catch 22 for us,” Hottle said.
From straightforward financial charities like soup kitchens and homeless shelters to court-ordered supervised visits between parents and children, the stress of hard times is reverberating across a social services system that has rarely been sufficiently funded in Wyoming, even during good economic times.
The Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation, which provides a shelter for domestic abuse victims along with preventive services and community outreach, had 59 new clients come through its door in August. The normal average is 40, and that alone is a sign of increased stress on the community, director Margie McWilliams said.
She’s worried that more domestic abuse victims will be forthcoming. “When there’s times of need, there’s more violence,” she said.
In Gillette, which has been hit particularly hard by the energy bust, many of the needs GARF is seeing are financial, and come from unexpected sources. “Women are coming in needing help with rent because their ex-batterer got laid off and couldn’t pay their child support,” McWilliams said.
GARF lost $15,000 from its state funding, but was able to balance that with a new influx of federal money. Its budget tightening is more due to a downturn in local support, with donations from United Way down by half, and money from the county and city down as well. Not expecting extra help from the state, foundation workers are trying to make money up by hosting their own fundraisers, including, McWilliams said with a smile, raffling off a hunting rifle. That one generated some controversy, she said, but then she added that people always have money for hunting, even in a recession.
Like the PMO they have cut prevention and outreach efforts and what they see as non-essential aspects of the organization. Their priorities, McWilliams said, has to be providing shelter and helping men and women escape abusive relationships.
Now, “we don’t have anything else that we can cut,” said the group’s accountant, Jennifer Anthony.
Cuts to one service are worrying. In the past, if a domestic abuse victim needed to get out of town quickly, GARF could buy that person a bus ticket to reach family in another town or state. It wasn’t used frequently — 12 to 15 times a year, said McWilliams — but GARF can no longer afford to provide the service.
Thus far that situation has come up twice since the budget cuts, and they’ve been able to call organizations elsewhere to find money and get the person out of town. But if they get a call from law enforcement or someone needing that service, they’ll need to keep scrambling for money, or simply say they can’t help. “It’s going to be a problem,” McWilliams said.
Nearby, at the Gillette Council of Community Service’s soup kitchen, people affected by the energy downturn worried about slipping through the cracks. At the midday meal on Oct. 3, 52-year-old Lin, who declined to give her last name, said she’d had her work hours at a local daycare reduced by more than half. Lin said that after the coal layoffs, the daycare’s clientele dropped — either because the parents could no longer afford it or because they were watching the kids themselves, no longer having a job to go to.
She’s claiming partial unemployment, and gets $200 in food stamps. Her son is on disability payments through Social Security. That combined money is all there is to support seven people – Lin’s 14-year-old daughter, and her three grandchildren by an older daughter.
The kids are on Medicaid, Lin said, but she is not eligible, although she wonders if she might have been if the Wyoming legislature had passed the proposed expansion to the Medicaid program. She pays $150 a month for high blood pressure and cholesterol medication, and curses what she calls her “rotten genes.” Both Lin’s parents died of heart disease.
“I’m just praying like heck I don’t have to go to the hospital,” she said.
Mikel Smith, who directs the Council of Community Service’s, says she’s seen more people coming to her office for financial aid because of cuts at the state level. One was a program for oral health that got cut from the Department of Health budget. “Tough men come in with tears in their eyes,” she said, because of an infected tooth.
Press Stephens runs the Foundation for the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming, a trust that supports charitable efforts by Episcopal churches across the state. His foundation’s trust comes from a small group of large gift givers, and is thus insulated from the downturn.
As the state reduced funding, the Foundation sprung into action in late July, spreading $240,000 between 48 Episcopal churches in what they called a “Diocesan wide poverty alleviation grant.” In a downturn like this one, much of that money goes to food banks, thrift stores and homeless shelters, Stephens said.
He believes food banks can serve a much larger purpose, because they are open to the public generally without any kind of income qualification. The food banks, with assistance from private charities, can be first-line defense offices to help families stretch their budgets in other ways, he said.
“Food might not have really been their problem,” Stephens said. “It might be that they can’t pay their electric bill, or can’t fill their gas tank to get their kids to school or sports or whatever.”
The foundation is also assisting the PMO with some of its prevention efforts. This is definitely a time for organizations that can do so to step up, Stephens said. “We have this state Legislature that would rather cut than find other creative ways to increase funding.”
At every agency and non-profit interviewed for this article, there was a sense that every ounce of fat had been cut from the budget. For now, core services had been largely retained, even if their execution is a bit slower or less immediately effective because of reduced staff or cuts to the back end.
“There’s nothing we’re absolutely not doing because of budget cuts, we’re just cutting back,” said the head of the Department of Family Services for Campbell County.
On Aug. 30, Gov. Mead announced that he would not make any more budget cuts before January, and though he might make recommendations based on budget projections, he would leave such decisions to the Legislature.
In comments reported by the Casper Star-Tribune, Mead called for the Legislature to consider the state’s rainy day fund, currently sitting at $1.59 billion, when discussing future cuts.
“We’re cut to the bone,” is how Hottle, the director of the PMO, describes his organization after the first round of cuts. In Keith Howard’s Gillette office, boxes crowded one side of the room — he gave up a storage unit, saving the organization $60 a month, and his water cooler, $25 a month.
Any more cuts, Hottle said, and they’re looking at impacting the effectiveness of their prevention work around the state.
That sentiment was echoed in Natrona County by Joseph Forscher, Chief Clinical Officer at the Central Wyoming Counseling Center. “The main impact of the budget cuts is that we feel more vulnerable,” he said. If steeper cuts to the Department of Health are being discussed in the Legislature, he said mental health organizations have the responsibility to draw attention to their needs.
“We’re not untenable, but we can see untenable from here,” is how he described their current funding.
As an oilfield worker, Jeffrey Hyde was the kind of employee who might one day be reached through the efforts of a project like the Collective Impact Project in Gillette, provided it can ever prove its value with data and spread statewide. Or perhaps ads on television, with the First Lady’s voice, might spur the friends and neighbors of a future Jeffrey Hyde to think more deeply about mental health and substance abuse. They might even know who to call.
It was the loss of his job in the energy downturn that, apparently, propelled Hyde into the tragic sequence that ended with his death.
And the reverberations continue.
Pamela Kandt and her family are recovering from the ordeal of having their peace shattered, and at the same time losing a neighbor they called a dear friend. In a letter to the editor published in the Casper Star-Tribune, she wrote: “Our neighbor, the hardworking urban gardener who shared his bounty generously with our little block of families and many others, experienced an inexplicable personality shift and was gone to us.”
She expressed a deep admiration for the mental health workers in the state, and believes the impacts of an event like the Jeffrey Hyde shooting does not end with the funeral. “There is a tragic ripple effect,” Kandt said.
When somebody does not get help and loses control in a violent or suicidal fashion, she said, those around them often need counseling or help themselves. Her family took advantage of victim’s service counseling provided by the state. Other families may not have that option, she said. Like a spider’s web, the safety net will bend, but any single break can leave it blowing in the wind.
“It kind of gives you that perspective on how close to the edge we can be, if we’re not properly medicated, properly cared for, it’s just astounding how somebody can go down so quickly,” Kandt said.
Keith Howard of the Campbell County PMO office has asked that WyoFile include the following information:
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text WYO to 741-741, and within minutes you’ll engage in a text conversation with a trained crisis counselor.
This story is part of a six-topic series addressing issues of importance to Wyoming sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council as part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work. For their generous support for the Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University — Ed.