JACKSON — Two suicides have occurred in Teton County this year, both young adults in their early twenties and both by firearm.
The first occurred March 28, a 20-year-old Teton County resident who was attending the University of Wyoming. The latest firearm suicide was a 22-year-old male resident who died Sunday.
“Two suicides by handguns,” Teton County Coroner Brent Blue said. “One 20-year-old and one 22-year-old. This is craziness.”
Blue said that of two suicides in 2022, both involved a firearm. Of seven total suicides in 2021, four involved firearms.
“The biggest issue is we’ve not approached mental health well in this state, certainly not funded it properly, and it shows up as suicides,” Blue said. “Unless our state Legislature addresses this, obviously it is a big issue.”
In recent years the state put about $44 million annually into mental health and substance abuse programs, but demand for services consistently outstrips funding and supply. In 2021 lawmakers reduced mental health funding by $7.5 million annually — roughly 17 percent.
Beverly Shore, the community prevention specialist for the Teton County Health Department, spoke about what she’s seeing as well as ongoing suicide prevention efforts.
“Seventy percent of all completed suicides in our state are by firearm,” Shore said. “There’s enough firearms in Wyoming that every household could have six.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that most gun deaths in the U.S. — 54 percent in 2020 — are suicides.
Teton County is creating a Suicide Fatality Review Team, a multi-agency group of professionals who meet quarterly to learn more about the circumstances leading to suicide deaths in Teton County. The team’s purpose will be to prevent suicides in Teton County.
Issues Shore sees countywide that compound mental health problems are “our isolation and our substance abuse and the overconsumption of alcohol.”
Specific to youth in Teton County, Shore cited athletic and academic pressure, social media use, substance abuse and the pandemic as particularly damaging.
According to Mental Health America, Wyoming ranks last in the country in youth mental health services, 48th in access to overall mental health care and 40th in prevalence of mental illness.
Statewide, we see suicide rates much higher than the national average.
In a report provided by the Wyoming Department of Health proposing funding solutions to develop psychiatric residential treatment facilities, it was noted that from 2009 to 2019 the annual age-adjusted suicide rate per 100,000 was 29.9, whereas the national average is currently 13.42.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, Wyoming has the second highest rate of gun suicides and gun suicide attempts in the U.S. from 2015 to 2019. The states with the highest suicide rates are Montana, Alaska and Wyoming.
Shore said free firearm safety locks are available at several locations.
“You can go to Stone Drug, the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, St. John’s Health Wellness Center or Curran-Seely,” Shore said. “Most firing ranges offer them for free.”
The Health Department is working on a campaign to promote these free firearm safety locks. Shore said that the campaign will be launching in the next few months.
“It’s not about trying to restrict your use or impede on your Second Amendment rights. It really is about safety,” Shore said. “Scientifically it’s been shown that when your firearm is locked up and you don’t have immediate access, when you’re having to go through a process to obtain that, it starts to deescalate your thinking of using that to kill yourself.
“There’s a lot of impulsivity around youth and suicide,” Shore said.
Dr. David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health found in a 2014 study that the evidence is “overwhelming” on the increased risk of successful suicide if there’s a gun in the home.
Hemenway found that rates of firearm suicides in states with the highest rates of gun ownership are 3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women, compared with states with the lowest gun ownership.
The Harvard School of Public Health also reported that empirical evidence suggests that people act in a moment of brief but heightened vulnerability.
“Intent matters but so does method,” Harvard Public Health author Madeline Drexler wrote in a report titled “Guns and Suicide: The Hidden Toll.”
About 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death.
Shore said the firearm safety lock campaign isn’t just for suicide prevention; it’s to prevent firearm accidents as well.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, about half of gun accident fatalities happen to people under 25, a risk that Shore said has been increasing.
In the meantime, Shore had tips for community members on how to check in on loved ones.
“It’s about communication,” Shore said. “It’s about recognizing different behaviors, whether that’s mood or irritability, are they sleeping too much or not enough, are they eating, how much time are they spending on social media? Have they been withdrawing and stopped doing an activity they enjoyed or seeing friends?”
“It’s about talking and understanding and being there and listening,” Shore said.
A Safe Talk suicide prevention training will be held this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for ages 15 and older. The training will take place on the second floor of the Teton County Health Department.
According to the Wyoming Division of Victim Services, suicide is currently the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-24, and among that age group, approximately 80 percent of those victims show clear warning signs prior to the act, making peer recognition a key tool for educators and students in preventing those deaths.
“No one should be afraid to ask, ‘Are you considering suicide?’” Shore said. “It’s not going to put that in their mind. It’s going to deescalate. That’s how we prevent it: by talking about it, asking about it.”
On top of fear, stigma and embarrassment, Shore said people may not know what to do if someone does say they’re struggling.
“The fear of what happens if they say yes, it doesn’t mean you have to fix them,” Shore said. “It just means you have to tell them you hear that they’re hurting, that you really care about them and that you’re going to get them help. Your job is to connect them with professionals.”