Wyoming struggles for answers amid growing suicide rate

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(CHEYENNE, Wyo.) — Lyle Neiberger would have turned 33 this year. But he is forever 17, frozen in his father Lance’s memory.

“I’ve never been angry at my son. I’ve always been angry at me. Why didn’t I see it? What if I would have done something different?” he lamented, while sitting in his woodshop at his home in central Wyoming.

It’s been 16 years since Lyle died by suicide. Lance Neiberger had no idea his son was contemplating suicide and Lyle left no note behind.

Memories of Lyle line the walls of Neiberger’s woodshop – a hobby father and son bonded over. “We’re all in the cowboy-up attitude, you know. Real men don’t cry. Real men don’t have problems,” he said.

Here in Wyoming, nicknamed the Cowboy State, “real men” are taught that when they have a problem, they pick up and fix it without looking back, Neiberger said.

“We all have something go wrong, and we all need help at times. And when you learn that you don’t need help and you just go on, maybe that makes life a lot tougher,” Neiberger said.

U.S. suicide rates are the highest they’ve been since World War II. At 30.5 per 100,000 persons in 2020, Wyoming’s rate is more than double that of the national average and the highest rate per capita in the nation, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.

At 71, Neiberger has taken on the responsibility of helping to curb Wyoming’s high suicide rate by telling Lyle’s story to schools in the surrounding area and by heading the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force. He hopes he can save at least one life.

The task force meets once a month in Casper, Wyoming, to plan events, pool resources and keep track of the lives lost.

At nearly 60,000 residents, Casper is Wyoming’s second largest city. Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters told ABC News that his officers respond to suicide calls twice as often as they do for shoplifting.

“I just want to go over the statistics that we are showing. Year to date last year, my officers had responded to 256 persons who were considering suicide and, this year, we have seen an absolute negligible change; so, year to date from May 15, 253,” he said at a recent task force meeting.

Sixteen years ago, one of those calls came from Lance Neiberger – when he found Lyle at home. Neiberger said he had no idea his son was suicidal.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. Now, after his death, it was horrible. It was just miserable. It was crying. It was the whys, the kicking yourself, everything. Today, I can often think about Lyle just with a smile on my face. I came to a point where I realized that it was Lyle’s decision and his decision only,” he said.

When asked why he thinks the suicide rate in Wyoming is so high, he had many reasons, one of them the state’s rural landscape.

Wyoming, accounting for its land mass, is the tenth largest state in the country; by population, it’s the smallest. So, even if you wanted help – help might be a long way from you.

Andrea Summerville, the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Centers, showed ABC News’ Trevor Ault the area right outside of Casper. She pointed out miles and miles of sweeping plains with very few people in sight.

“You’ll hit a major town about every hundred miles. And when I say a town, I mean a town of 5,000 people,” she said. “You might get a call from somebody that’s 100 miles away from the nearest town, but you might also just not have the mental health professionals. Wyoming has been a mental health professional shortage area, always, designated by the Rural Health Agency. The entire state. Not just an area, not just a town, but the entire state.”

Now federal legislation to help any American in crisis reach a counselor by phone is set to launch July 16. It will transition the ten-digit suicide hotline into a three-digit number, 988. But in Wyoming, even that will be an uphill climb to adopt.

“There are some logistics tied with 988, specifically things like geo location. So with 911, everybody knows if you call 911 they know where you’re at to locate your cellphone. You’re not going to find a cell tower every 50 miles or so here. And so making sure that we are meeting those infrastructure challenges is probably going to be our biggest, most expensive long-term project,” Summerville said.

The 988 hotline is being touted as a one stop shop for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis, but funding the project so that health care providers are ready for the influx of calls is proving to be challenging.

Similarly to 911, 988 will be funded by a monthly fee on all phone lines. The fee is determined by each state.

The Department of Health and Human Services expects the volume of calls to double within the first year. However, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only Colorado, Nevada, Washington, and Virginia have enacted a comprehensive plan for funding.

The Central Wyoming Counseling Center is one of two suicide hotlines centers already up and running in Wyoming. It opened two years ago.

The workers know this state’s layout, its culture, its resources or lack thereof– which is essential in a crisis.

They’ve secured $2.1 million to expand the suicide hotline to a 24-hour service, most of it federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act that Wisconsin Gov. Mark Gordon appropriated, but with the state legislature refusing to expand Medicaid, federal funding will soon run out.

Summerville told ABC News they currently only have the funding to continue 988 for two more years. “In terms of putting it into operation in Wyoming, It’s going to take a lot of work. We only have four crisis stabilization centers across the state. So how do we move people across the state?”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 45,979 who died by suicide in the United States in 2020, nearly 70% were white men. Men are less likely to reach out for help, a fact that Dr. Amanda DeDiego, an Assistant Professor at the University of Wyoming, is all too aware of.

“There’s that heavy, heavy stigma about help seeking behavior. And then there’s not a lot of options for you to be able to seek care in these rural communities and have your confidentiality. It’s not that your provider is not honoring the confidentiality. It’s just that everybody knows everything,” DeDeigo said.

Along with Lisa Scroggins, the Executive Director of the Natrona County Library, she is spearheading a new project to create spaces that sidestep the issue of stigma. It’s called Wyoming Public Access to Telehealth Services or WyPATHS. It will be a booth placed in local libraries that is soundproof and provides a space for people to be able to connect through telehealth to their health care providers.

They plan on training library staff across Wyoming in suicide prevention.

“A big part of the training is being empathetic to your fellow citizen or resident. So seeing the person who walks into the door and realizing their situation may be different than yours and looking for signs that a person may be needing help and then saying, ‘Hey, right here, here’s your help,’” said Scroggins.

Lance Neiberger still thinks about how Lyle didn’t come to him about his negative thoughts when he reflects on the loss of his son.

“He didn’t feel comfortable enough to come to me and say, ‘Dad, life’s kicking my butt. I’m really struggling here.’ So, I think what he was doing was acting up and as his drama increased, I got angry. I didn’t like the drama. We weren’t communicating about the problem. So he took his drama to another level and I took my anger to another level. And at the time of his death and when he needed me the most, I wasn’t there for him because we were going in opposite directions instead of working together,” he said.

Neiberger said he considered taking his own life during the six months after Lyle died. “It wasn’t until our daughter gave birth to our granddaughter that I really realized what I would have missed had I not lived back then.”

As Neiberger stared at Lyle’s gravestone, decorated with mementos from friends and family, he couldn’t help but wonder what his son’s life would have been like had he lived past 17. But he is determined to keep having these very uncomfortable conversations in the hopes that Lyle’s death will not be in vain.

“That’s what keeps me going. My faith in the fact that I truly believe I’ll see him again someday. I’ll be with him. That’s what’s given me the hope to continue,” he said.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The rollout of the national 988 mental health hotline is expected on July 16.

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