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New Wyoming suicide prevention hotline already saving lives

February 6, 2021 GMT

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Bernice Hazucha’s goal is to ensure every Wyomingite in crisis gets their call answered.

The suicidologist, who moved from New York to Wyoming with her husband, Kevin, in September 2018, has 20 years of experience working as a suicide intervention counselor for the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral Health. Now, she serves as the suicide prevention lifeline director at the Central Wyoming Counseling Center in Casper – the home of Wyoming’s first local suicide prevention call center.

Until the center opened Aug. 11, Wyoming was the only state without its own call center for those in crisis. This meant Wyomingites with suicidal thoughts and/or specific plans to end their life had to call the national number and hope they were successfully reconnected to the closest state’s center, risking long wait times in a situation when every second matters.

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Sure enough, on its second day open, Wyoming’s first call center saved its first life, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.

“Once we get that caller, it’s very crucial, because we don’t know what is on that caller’s mind,” Bernice said. “Does he have a plan? So we ask them that within the conversation. Some may admit to it, some may not admit to it, but that’s what we’re doing ... we just talk through it, have a conversation, appease them as best as we can. And if they’re escalated, we deescalate them.”

The center wouldn’t be open if the Hazuchas hadn’t pushed for it. They were shocked to learn the state with the second-highest suicide rate (according to the latest American Association of Suicidology data, which is from 2018) didn’t have a local call center for the lifeline, so they put together an advocacy plan within the first few months of moving to the Cowboy State.

Bernice’s husband, Kevin, is the CEO of the Central Wyoming Counseling Center, which is part of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, so one of the couple’s first moves was to advocate for a call center with the Wyoming Department of Health and the governor’s office. They also reached out to WAMHSAC members and secured their vital support. Subsequently, the Department of Health released an RFI, to which CWCC replied and submitted a proposal, but it took a while to hear anything back.

By January 2020, they were able to secure an audience with Gov. Mark Gordon and Jen Davis, his health and human service policy adviser. Through the advocacy work of WAMHSAC Executive Director Andi Summerville, legislators such as Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, also got on board, and several meetings and one RFP later, the Hazuchas were awarded a contract to open the center.

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The Hazuchas expressed their gratitude to the “new” Department of Health administration, as well as to Governor Gordon and Sweeney, among other state legislators, for bringing their dream of opening a local call center to fruition.

“The single most important aspect of any of this is Bernice’s passion,” Kevin said. “And her expertise and her influence on getting this to happen. When we met with the governor, he and Jen Davis had some great questions on how this would work and why it’s important, and Bernice was able to rattle off all the answers in rapid succession and share her experience being in a very, very busy 24-hour, seven-days-a-week week call center in New York. And that impressed the governor.”

Since opening in August, the Hazuchas have noticed that not everyone dialing their number is calling because they’re suicidal. Many are seniors who don’t have anyone else to talk to, but the center’s two full-time employees never hang up. They treat each caller with the respect they deserve, and always try to help however they can.

If someone does call in an immediate crisis situation, the scenario turns into an active rescue. The call center employee tries to get the caller’s whereabouts and learn if they have a plan and lethal means readily available to them. Then Bernice gets on the phone with the police department in whatever community this person is calling from and sends an officer to the scene.

“You can have a day where there’s no calls, you can have a day where there’s five or six or seven calls,” Kevin said. “You can have a day where there’s no calls and then all of a sudden, at 11, you can get that one really critical call where you’re involving other agencies and you’re getting somebody out there. It really is a lifesaver, and we’ve experienced that already.”

No matter what the situation is, the Hazuchas agree the most important thing for the call center employees is to remain on the line. Similar to 911 operators, they stay on the call until they’ve communicated directly with the police on the scene and they’ve been told the situation is under control. Many of the police officers they’ve worked with so far have previously received Crisis Intervention Training, Bernice said, so they’re used to intervening in high-pressure situations. (In Cheyenne, about 60% of the officers are CIT certified, according to Chief Brian Kozak’s Nov. 30 address.)

It’s also a requirement for every call center employee to receive Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, which is offered both locally and regionally by Cheyenne-based suicide prevention and postvention nonprofit Grace for 2 Brothers Foundation.

Bernice noted that the Casper center doesn’t just take calls from within Wyoming. Any call with a 307 area code is directed to the center, so that includes Wyoming cellphone owners who are on a trip out of state, who have moved to a new state, etc. That can make the job much more difficult when a center employee is trying to determine someone’s whereabouts in a state they aren’t familiar with. However, they make it work, and Bernice said even though her job is to manage her two employees and oversee the center operations, she doesn’t hesitate to jump in when things get hectic.

“We’ve had some nights that it gets busy and my staff are fairly new at this, so having my experience, I can navigate those calls, I can pick up,” Bernice said. “I miss answering calls, so that’s something that I enjoy very much.”

It’s a passion that few people share due to the taboo nature of suicide, and that just adds fuel to her fire.

“To talk it out with somebody, a trained staff (member), we can help them get to where they need to be to get out of that dark place,” she said. “And sometimes we also suggest coping skills and safety plans with the caller. And we encourage them. A lot of callers are embarrassed to call. We’ve been getting that a lot, they’re embarrassed and say, ‘I should never be calling here,’ and it’s because of, I’m assuming, that pick-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality here in Wyoming.”

New Yorkers are tough, Bernice said, so this isn’t her first time working with people who might believe asking for help with their mental health is a sign of weakness. But there’s something about Wyoming culture that can make it even more challenging to reach people.

“That frontier mentality of ‘do it on your own, you don’t need help, don’t ask for help,’ it’s way more pronounced here,” Kevin said. “And that’s why our tagline is ‘Asking for help is the new cowboy tough.’ And I think we need to emphasize the importance of asking for help.”

So far, the couple is pleased with how day-to-day operations are running at the call center. The two employees answering the phone are getting in the swing of things, and Bernice said she feels they’re making a real difference in the state. Now, all they need is more funding so they can increase their staff and eventually be able to answer the phone at any hour.

“I’m grateful for what we got. But we want to be there 24/7,” Kevin added. “Especially during this time of COVID, we need to be kind to one another. We’re all stressed, but I think we need to look out for each other. … you’re not going to put the idea (of suicide) into somebody’s head by asking ‘Have you thought about taking your own life?.’ We need to de-stigmatize talking about these things, because that’s the first step.”