Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, therapists at Yellowstone Behavioral Health Center have seen more people in crisis.
“I think it’s not a surprise to anybody that the past year has been hard on not only our physical health, but also on our mental health,” said Becky Ransom, the center’s executive director.
She added that mental health issues tend to outlast traumatic events like the pandemic.
“We have more needs to serve,” Ransom told Park County commissioners on Tuesday. “And I really don’t see that going away.”
In the fiscal year that ran from July 2019 to June 2020, she said the organization provided 678 hours of emergency services. That included conducting 204 evaluations of people who were posing a threat to themselves or others as a result of mental illness and had been identified as potentially needing to be involuntarily hospitalized.
In the current fiscal year, which ends next month, both the hours and evaluations performed by Yellowstone Behavioral Health are on track to finish higher from the prior year. Ransom said that’s included an increase in the number of youth evaluated for involuntary hospitalizations because of suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide.
Through the work of the center’s staff, she said more than 80% of those evaluated are given assistance and don’t need to be hospitalized. However, she said those diversion efforts should really be happening before there’s a crisis — in an outpatient setting rather than at a hospital.
But the challenge is that Yellowstone Behavioral Health, which has locations in Cody and Powell, is short on funds for that work.
“When we can’t provide the outpatient services to help maintain and stabilize an individual, then they become a crisis,” Ransom said. “And then they become higher cost for everybody.”
Commissioner Joe Tilden agreed, expressing frustration with the current funding system for mental health care in Wyoming.
“… there’s no help for people until they get into a crisis mode,” he said.
Ransom appeared before the commissioners on Tuesday to ask the county government for $70,000 to help cover the cost of the emergency services provided by the center. She described the situation as particularly urgent after the State of Wyoming cut its support by 10%, or roughly $160,000.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re providing more services than we’re getting paid for,” Ransom said, adding, “we are going to start facing hard decisions on the services that we can continue to provide.”
In the coming fiscal year, Yellowstone Behavioral Health plans to eliminate some vacant positions and Ransom indicated it may have to take a hard look at things like case management services, medication management, skill building and social and recreational programs for clients with serious mental illness.
Park County provided $40,000 to the organization last year, below the $50,000 the nonprofit had requested and that commissioners provided the prior year. Ransom said she understands many governments and organizations are struggling right now, “but mental health needs are increasing.”
“We can’t keep getting hit and continue providing services at the same level,” she said, adding that every dollar the county provides goes directly to providing services in the community.
Commissioners won’t decide how much funding to give the organization until they put together the county budget next month, but Commissioner Tilden offered his general support. He said Yellowstone Behavioral Health’s work in diverting patients from hospitalizations to other services has saved the county “a lot of money.”
Tilden also criticized Wyoming lawmakers for cutting funding to mental health services during the recent legislation session.
“Mental health in the state of Wyoming … always has been a big issue and it’s always getting worse all the time,” he said.
Tilden also expressed hope that some of the State of Wyoming’s $1 billion share of the American Rescue Plan will go toward entities like Yellowstone Behavioral Health.
“If anything were to qualify for COVID-related, this most definitely does,” he said.
Gov. Mark Gordon has identified “Health and Social Services” as one of the top priorities for the funding and Ransom said the governor “has been very supportive of mental health.”
As part of its services, Yellowstone Behavioral Health operates a telephone line for anyone in a mental health crisis, accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 1-888-863-0535.
“Our therapists answer — 3 a.m., doesn’t matter,” Ransom said. “Weekend, holiday, Christmas, we’re always there for the county.”