One of the most perplexing mysteries about Wyoming’s 2021 legislative session is how the House could kill a suicide prevention bill. Then, when lawmakers got a chance to reconsider the matter, they rejected a second measure, too.
Trying to keep people from killing themselves shouldn’t be a controversial issue in Wyoming, which has the highest suicide rate in the country. But apparently it is, at least for lawmakers who decided against mandating school programs that train students how to recognize suicide warning signs from their peers and obtain help from adults.
Administrators, teachers and students in Park County School District No. 6 in Cody asked legislators to address the problem. Their testimony led the Joint Education Interim Committee to sponsor House Bill 62 – Suicide prevention.
It was a simple, one-paragraph measure that stated school districts shall provide age-appropriate, evidence-based suicide prevention programs to students. When I saw it listed among the committee bills filed in January, I thought passage would be a slam dunk.
But the House rejected it, 34-25, largely based on unfounded fears and debunked myths. And when Rep. Rachel Williams-Rodriguez (R-Cody) sponsored a similar bill, HB 175, later in the session after another teen suicide, it only gained one additional supporter.
Let’s begin with what we know about this crisis in Wyoming. The state counted 170 deaths ruled suicides in 2019, making it the highest-ranked state per capita in a category no state wants to lead. While national statistics haven’t been tallied for 2020, the number of suicides in the state increased to 181.
Daniel Crossaboon, a Cody High School psychologist, told lawmakers that suicide is the leading cause of death for residents ages 15-24 in Wyoming. When the Legislature passed the Jason Flatt Act in 2014, preceded by many other states, it made funds available for all teachers and administrators to receive eight hours of suicide prevention training every four school years.
It would be a nice feel-good story if youth suicides declined, but the opposite is true. While the legislation has definitely saved some lives, Crossaboon said, adolescent suicide rates have increased by 42% from 2016 to 2019.
“When a person commits suicide, it’s like a bomb going off in a marketplace, and everyone is hit by shrapnel,” said Peggy Monteith, the Cody school district’s superintendent. “It affects so many lives.”
Monteith’s son committed suicide using a firearm nearly a decade ago, she said. Two Cody students killed themselves since she took the superintendent’s job, she added.
“I swore that wasn’t going to happen, but it did,” she said. “Watching another mother go through what I did is not something that I want to see.”
The key to suicide prevention “is to train students, not just educators, because kids talk to kids,” Monteith said.
Students don’t know how to react to harbingers, Crossaboon said.
“I’ve had students tell me they’d been told by others that they were going to take their lives, but they didn’t know what to do with that information,” He said. “They thought they were doing the right thing by protecting that person’s trust, when in fact it ended in tragedy.”
Whether to make offering suicide prevention programs mandatory was an issue legislators hotly debated when crafting HB 62. Opponents said there was nothing stopping districts from offering evidence-based programs on their own, and supporters didn’t — and still don’t — dispute that notion.
But three-quarters of Wyoming school districts aren’t teaching students what they need to do if friends confide they are thinking about suicide, said Dr. Hollis Hackman of the Wyoming Psychological Association.
And students testified about the pressure this puts on them to appropriately respond. “I’ve had three friends attempt suicide,” Cody High School junior Paula Medina said. “It’s very nerve-racking that if you say the wrong thing, you may never see your friends again. It’s a truly horrible, anxiety-ridden experience to go through and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Medina didn’t have the necessary tools “to truly talk to them and stop them from harming themselves,” she said.
Crossaboon advocated for reform. “If we’re going to change this situation we’re going to have to do something radical, like compelling districts to offer these programs,” he said. Within a week of the Cody High School campus reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic closure, counselors were conducting 22 suicide-risk evaluations, he said.
While some HB 175 critics complained that the state cannot afford to expand suicide prevention programs to all schools, there is no extra cost involved. Several years ago the Legislature appropriated money for all 23 counties to hire suicide prevention specialists.
There are “two schools of thought about suicide,” Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) said during a Joint Education Committee meeting. “One says let’s engage everyone, and the other is, ‘Let’s not talk about it,’ because it only encourages that behavior and plants the seed.”
There’s nothing to be gained by not talking about the widespread problems, said Ann Perkins, Sheridan County’s suicide prevention specialist, who works with three school districts.
“We are taking away the stigma,” Perkins said. “So much of suicide prevention is about removing the silence that surrounds suicide.”
Some legislators acknowledge something needs to be done, but they failed to recognize how essential student training is by making it mandatory.
“This is yet another requirement to add to these teachers’ plates,” said Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne). “They are facing an extraordinary shortage of time in the classroom. … Placing these societal issues on their shoulders and telling them that this is their problem to fix, and their job to watch over, also concerns me.”
Two Democratic lawmakers strongly disagreed with Brown. “This is the most important thing we can teach — making sure students survive,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie).
The Education Committee learned an important lesson in studying the issue, House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly said: “When there’s a suicide in the school, all teaching stops. All learning stops. Everyone in that building needs to be taking care of each other and the most vulnerable among them, so the thought that [suicide prevention training] isn’t efficient is just wrong.”
Hannah Blasco, a Cody High senior, lost her brother to suicide almost two years ago. “I’m speaking on behalf of him and students who have lost someone to suicide and have not had a chance to have their voices heard,” she said. “If I could help a single person from feeling the way that I do now, I would gladly do this testimony a thousand times over.”
One time should have been enough. But a majority of legislators short-circuited a school-based solution that has tremendous potential.
By not taking the prevention effort directly into our schools, the Legislature blew not one, but two golden opportunities to take a proactive approach.
Students are likely the most important asset the state has in turning Wyoming’s youth suicide problem around, and it’s time we treat them as such.