Difficult Discussions

By on May 9, 2018

Woman’s suicide highlights staggering statistics in a state where lawmakers are hot and cold on suicide prevention   

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Being around Rachel Rafferty was life-giving. “She would always bring a huge sense of energy,” friend Chris Bates said.

In one summer, Rafferty hiked many of the highest Teton peaks. She would happily sob at the sight of bears emerging from hibernation.

“She was in awe of Jackson,” friend Carl Howard said. “She wanted to do it all—climb every mountain, climb every tree, hike every trail.”

Sunshine is one way you could describe her, Howard said. Her smile would light up a room, she easily made friends with people from different walks of life.

Rafferty, 24, died by suicide on April 28.

Howard described her passion for life, one depicted on her Instagram account, filled with images of alpine vistas. At her May 7 funeral in Colorado Springs, Colorado, her parents told the 100-person crowd to seek the same source of light they saw in Rafferty.

“She was the type of person that when you’re with her, [she] would make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world,” Howard said. “But she wouldn’t take time for herself, she would just keep giving and giving.”

Howard said the “little things” like finding housing in Jackson, looking for a new job and joining a new church took their toll on her. Howard and Rafferty, roommates, were set to find a new place to live in the coming months and the lack of housing in Jackson was stressful.

An employee of Teton Gravity Research’s retail store, she worked in Grand Teton National Park for two summers and lived in Jackson for the past year.

When Talking Saves Lives

Financial crisis is compounded in Jackson by a housing shortage and skyrocketing rents. Meanwhile, Wyoming, the least populated state, can feel isolating. A lack of a support system deepens stressors. It’s a jolt for some, who imagine Jackson to be a paradise of sorts.

“We live in a state that still has a Western ethos of taking care of your own problems, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” Mark Houser, of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, said. He has worked with suicide prevention and postvention for 20 years. “Perhaps we have less of a culture in Wyoming of seeking out mental health resources.”

Houser hosts a support group, Survivors of Suicide Loss, which meets the first Wednesday of each month. He sees firsthand the turmoil of suicide.

Suicide is complicated—and the reasons for it are never singular. “The most frequent question that surfaces is ‘Why?’” Houser said.

It is a question that can sometimes never be answered, leading to a range of emotions for friends and family. People will feel guilty for not seeing the signs or wonder if they could have done something. But “the depth of the loss never goes away,” Houser said.

The hope is that over time people develop a better emotional musculature to carry the loss, he said.

Like Rafferty’s death, which shocked friends and family, warning signs are not always visible.

They include talking about wanting to die, about feeling hopeless or having no purpose, about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain, about being a burden to others. Other signs include increased alcohol or drug use, acting anxious, agitated or reckless.

“We have developed superior skills in hiding our emotions from even those close to us,” Houser said.

That’s why it’s important to have thoughtful, clear conversations about mental health and suicide. It brings the issue to the forefront. It’s even more important to talk to friends or family who are feeling suicidal.

Some believe talking about it could move someone closer to suicide, but Houser said conversation creates another protective factor.

“It shows that individual that you care about them and will help them pause and shift their thinking,” he said. “Honest conversations are really helpful, even if you don’t think they are.”

Community Counseling Center executive director Deidre Ashley said engaging in discussion helps you gauge where a person is in their thinking. “If someone is feeling suicidal you have to ask the questions to find out where they are on that continuum,” she said. “That’s all people really need: a little bit of hope that something can change, that things can get better.”

A Price on Mental Health

Since state funding cuts in 2017, suicide prevention resources in Teton County are at a basic level. State lawmakers eliminated more than $2 million for suicide prevention during the 2017 legislative session. It was the same year Wyoming registered the highest rate of suicide in the country.

In 2017, 157 deaths were reported in Wyoming, on average one death by suicide every two days. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 44 in the state.

Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center does not rely on state funding for its suicide prevention programs so they were not affected. Its services include a free 24-hour crisis hotline and free crisis walk-ins during business hours.

St. John’s Medical Center has a resource phone line to connect people with the right programs. The hospital also has two holding and secure rooms for people feeling suicidal and crisis counselor visits.

Prior to budget cuts, the Preventative Management Organization, which holds the contract for preventative care for tobacco, alcohol and substance abuse in the state, managed suicide prevention.

In Teton County, PMO focused on community training and prevention. That included QPR training, a free community level suicide prevention training. It created a safety net in the community for people with suicidal ideation or behaviors. People learned how to spot the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to respond. In two years, more than 400 community members participated in the 90-minute trainings.

This year, lawmakers sang a different tune. An amendment added to House Bill 1, general government appropriations, restored state funding for suicide prevention during Wyoming’s 2018 legislative session.

The bill says that $8 million will be expended to the Wyoming Department of Health to provide grants to counties for tobacco, alcohol or controlled substances misuse prevention and suicide prevention. At least $2 million of the total is to be used for suicide prevention.

The Wyoming Department of Health, which will distribute the grants, changed its funding model in 2018. Instead of a singular entity, like PMO, receiving the funds and distributing them, the state agency will distribute the funds to each county.

Ashley hopes the funding will revive the Teton County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which helped coordinate efforts in the county. It could also help bring back in-depth training for community members. 

As for Rafferty’s friends, like Howard, they too are set on finding ways to work within the community. Howard said he wants to get involved with suicide prevention in Teton County and keep the conversation going about Rafferty.

“If this helps one person, then my job is done,” he said. “I think Rachel might have been pointing me in this direction.” 

Resources: U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255); the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center 24-hour crisis line, 307-733-2046

About Erika Dahlby

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