Uptick in local suicides increase county’s prevention efforts

By Patti Carpenter

It’s a fact. More people have died by suicide in recent months than by COVID-19 in Big Horn County, making it one of the county’s major areas of focus.

According to the county’s health department prevention specialist Chad Lindsay, suicide prevention efforts have been a high priority in Big Horn County for some time, and recent events have only increased the urgency.

“Just last week we were talking as a team with the superintendents (of schools) and I said we had one COVID death from someone who actually had the virus, but we have had several COVID-related deaths due to us being in a bubble caused by the virus,” explained Lindsay. “It has to do with not being able to interact to get the help we need and not being able to see loved ones as often as we should. Substance abuse is up, homicides are up and suicides are up, too.”

Lindsay confirmed that, based on information he has on recent deaths, there seems to be a link between the isolation required by the virus and recent suicides.

“Throughout the country, that has been the case,” he added. “I believe that all of us have added anxiety as a result of a combination of COVID, media on all sides and politics on all sides. I’m not pointing the finger at any single national media outlet or any single political party, but I think that all of them are adding to the anxiety, the frustration and the angst.”

Lindsay noted that social media also contributes to anxiety.

“Social media, I think, is blowing up on either side,” he explained. “We’re either doing too much, or not doing enough. Either we’re not protecting people enough or we’re trampling on their rights. Moderation on all levels is a key to success on this and most things. Extreme measures have extreme results.”

Lindsay recommends turning off the television, connecting with a loved one, reading a book or taking a walk to relieve anxious feelings regarding the pandemic or other issues.

“Do something that will fill you up with something positive and not something that will add to your frustration or empty you out,” he said. “I feel like we are trying to fill ourselves up with things that, in the end, empty us out more than filling us up with something useful.”

Lindsay said dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic “definitely put a damper on all things prevention,” including mental health related prevention efforts like suicide prevention.

“We’ve had to protect ourselves from this virus, and we were told to do so by staying in our bubble,” Lindsay explained. “I could not schedule trainings or bring in a trainer from outside of the county or state because it would expose others to this virus. In order to protect our physical health, I feel like our mental health protection has suffered.”

Many of the COVID-19 cases in the county have come from exposure by individuals travelling into or outside of the county. 

“In an effort to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, we did shut down trainings and bringing in outside sources,” said Lindsay. “We are now seeing that there are other ways that could have helped us, like online trainings, Zoom and that sort of thing. I think we’re all learning through this process that there are several ways we can do things that are different than the way we’ve done things in the past.”

Lindsay said, there are advantages to in-person trainings, like being able to ask questions and information provided by non-verbal cues.

“We just interact better in person or in one-on-one or small group settings,” he said, “and that’s a lot more difficult on a Zoom call with dozens there.”

Lindsay agreed that, prior to the pandemic, it appeared that the county was getting a handle on the suicide problem in the area, with only one case involving suicidal ideation leading to an observation stay at a local hospital in October compared to numerous calls of that nature in previous years.

“I think the combination of the anxiety related to the virus, potential unknowns and being in a bubble where we can’t connect with others and talk through our emotions has contributed to this problem,” said Lindsay. “We, as humans, are social beings and, though we don’t need everybody else to have the answers for us, we do need to be able to verbalize our thoughts to formulate our own answers.”

Lindsay noted that certain forms of mental illness increase the need to process thoughts with assistance from others. He added that mental health professionals are particularly well prepared in their training to help in this regard.

“Mental health is very similar to physical and medical help in that there is a need for regular visits,” said Lindsay. “If there are issues, we need to get those issues addressed immediately and not wait until the virus is 100 percent gone. We need to have routine check-ups whether they be for physical health or mental health. We need to make sure the cure is not worse than the virus, and sitting in a bubble is not healthy for us.”

Lindsay said the health department has recently produced a card that will soon be available countywide with specific sources of help, including a list of recommended mental health providers to call in non-urgent situations (see information list accompanying this article). 

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Lindsay regarding the county’s efforts to prevent suicide. “We’re always planning and implementing prevention measures, but the urgency has definitely increased as a result of increased mental health issues including death by suicide in the county.”

A high rate of suicide in the state and at the local level is something the county health department has been dealing with for some time. Lindsay noted there are certain factors that amplify the problem.

“We have a mentality of lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” explained Lindsay. “We’re hesitant to bother others or ask for help, though help is there. The resources are there; we just need to put forth the effort to ask. There is always someone there who cares.

“Obviously, we live in a state where, with hunting, there’s a lot of access to firearms. (A major form of suicide in Wyoming.) We’re also a frontier area, so while services are available, they are rarely just down the street. Also, a lot of times people have some hesitancy to seek help because they are afraid they will be labeled.

“It’s important to realize that everybody needs someone to talk to, and we have professionals with that expertise. It’s their expertise to talk to people and to help people and, of course, those conversations are kept very confidential. It’s important to use those people to protect our mental health, just as we would go see a physician if we needed to have assistance with our physical health.”

Lindsay said, in his role as prevention specialist for the county health department, he has been working with local school districts, the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Dept. and other county agencies and organizations to set up small group prevention presentations, where social distancing is possible. Lindsay said he would be happy to work with any agency or organization wanting to set up a training and can be reached by phone at 307-899-0174 or by email at chad.lindsay@bighorncountywy.gov.