Wyoming is no longer the only state without a local suicide prevention call center. The Central Wyoming Counseling Center on Tuesday launched the state’s first and only service, a project years in the making.

When Bernice and Kevin Hazucha came to Wyoming in 2018 from New York, Bernice was dismayed to learn the state didn’t have a local outlet for people in crisis to call when they needed someone to talk to.

Of course Wyomingites have been able to call national hotlines, but the people on the other end wouldn’t be in Wyoming and so wouldn’t have the context about the place the Hazuchas say is so important when responding to mental health in the state.

Kevin is the CEO of the Central Wyoming Counseling Center, and Bernice up to that point had spent her entire career as a bilingual suicide prevention counselor for a call center in New York.

Having the necessary background in Bernice, and the needed facility in the counseling center, the pair went to work lobbying the state.

“We’ve been dogged with this,” Kevin said. “Because of Bernice’s background, we were able to jump a lot of hurdles.”

Eventually, after maybe a year of meetings with various state and health officials, the state issued a request for proposals for an in-state suicide prevention call center. The Central Wyoming Counseling Center responded to the request, and was ultimately awarded a contract.

Now, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a Wyoming contingent. The state allocated $400,000 to the hotline for the current two-year budget cycle, Kim Deti, a spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Health, said.

That gives the counseling center enough leeway to staff one eight-hour shift, five days a week. Bernice is the call center director, and she’ll have two additional staff.

The pair said they hope to eventually expand enough to staff the center 24/7. Though that will require some fundraising, Kevin said. The center is accepting private donations.

While local counselors will only be staffed from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, residents can call the local hotline number, 307-776-0610, at other times and be redirected to the national hotline.

Wyoming’s per capita suicide rate has ranked in the top five nationwide since 1996. Last year, it had the second-highest rate in the U.S. Much of the Mountain West faces similar concerns. The high suicide rate has been attributed to a variety of factors, from limited light pollution, to altitude, to more access to firearms.

Bernice said she thinks a lack of a Wyoming-specific crisis hotline has also contributed.

“Somebody that has never encountered mental health services,” Bernice said, “They can pick up the phone and they can’t see us, but they can hear us,” which might make asking for help less intimidating.

Wyoming’s “cowboy tough” ethos often encourages people to “go it alone,” Kevin said. It’s a difficult barrier to overcome, and a hotline might be the first step in getting someone the proper mental health services they need.

“That person may never make that call again,” Kevin said, so it’s important the staffer answering the phones knows about Wyoming, its culture and the services available in the state.

This illustrates another service the hotline can provide. It’s not only for persons in crisis, Bernice said. The Counseling Center provides a variety of mental health services, and Kevin said the facility is allied with a litany of mental health providers statewide.

If someone calls needing particular services, those manning the hotline will be able to direct them through the proper channels.

That said, Kevin thinks the hotline will predominantly be used for those in crisis. In those cases, “it could really save a life,” he said, by helping direct law enforcement or medical services if someone called having already acted, or with plans to hurt themselves.

The hotline officially opened at 4 p.m. Tuesday, with remarks from Gov. Gordon and a ribbon cutting at the new center on the Central Wyoming Counseling Center campus.